In August 2004, this column discussed issues of whether petroleum is a renewable resource. The article cited a projection that crude-oil production rates would peak in 2037. It went on to describe the pros and cons of a hypothesis called “abiotics” for formation of oil that is totally different from the “fossil” approach that geologists traditionally accept about petroleum being formed from the organic process of fermenting dead forests and dinosaurs. Then last December this piece cited a German study that measured peak crude-oil output for the world at 81 million barrels per day (Mbd) in 2006, and posed questions about what the industrialized world will do faced with this peak and a future 7% annual decline in oil availability. So it seems appropriate to revisit these topics that are important to our lives and industry, especially in light of new information.

It is now confirmed that 2007 crude-oil production fell as reserve replacements did not match consumption. Consensus among analysts is that reserve replacements ran about 50-60% of production and ranged from a low of 10-15% by Chevron to 120% by BP. In early February, Daniel Yergin, chairman of Houston-based Cambridge Energy Research Associates, said that the world needs to invest $22 trillion over the next 25 years to solve the problem. That figure is half of the United States’ GDP. So far none of this appeared on your radar screen, did it? It’s understandable because oil producers reap no benefits by alarming the public. With output shrinking in 60 of 98 worldwide fields and predicted to enter decline in 14 more over the next decade, the world is in real trouble.

Concurrent with this gloomy news we see a spot of hope. Work in process by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and studies at both Oregon State and the University of Washington seem to clearly resurrect the idea and processes by which abiotic hydrocarbons are formed in the Earth’s mantle. Further, it seems clear that this issue is no longer an object of ridicule but now a credible hypothesis to explain a mystery that we must solve. It is possible that capture of an understanding can lead us all from the brink of disaster.

Dr. Giora Proskurowski, a marine geochemist who led the Woods Hole team, has solid evidence that hydrocarbons are being released from hydrothermal fields at Lost City in the Middle Atlantic range at the bottom of the sea. Presence of organics with one to four carbon atoms were detected whose formation is attributed to processes similar to Fischer-Tropsch. In addition, the conventional organic oil formation process was dealt a blow by NASA, which discovered enormous methane deposits on the surface of Titan, moon of Saturn, only possible to be formed by abiotic means.

Recall that abiotic methods were first postulated by a Russian chemist in 1745 to explain rock oil and is an idea that has been supported by many. Most geologists and oil people, however, have held this with distain. The Russian and Ukrainian Academies of Sciences, which have labored mightily on this for 60 years, are especially peeved at a person like the late Dr. Thomas Gold, who many critics say has serially plagiarized much of their work without attribution and, further, is in error. Vicious comments and attitudes about those close to this work are truly amazing. Regardless, Dr. Proskurowski’s work is of great importance because it holds the promise that oil can be generated synthetically by processes similar to what occurs in natural hydrothermal fluids.

It is unclear exactly what is happening, but it appears that abiotic synthesis occurs in the presence of small amounts of water, heat (330°C) over a period of two to four days and ultramafic (igneous) rock in the Earth’s mantle. The process is called “serpentinization” when in a reducing environment with high hydrogen concentration present. This was studied and well known since 1938 when this work indicated a need for the natural catalyst olivine, a magnesium iron silicate commonly found in the mantle. Well, there you have it.

Meanwhile, oil production of what is reported to be abiotic petroleum is occurring in the Dnieper-Donets Basin in Russia (and this is old data) in igneous rock formations where no oil is supposed to exist. Of 61 wells drilled, 37 have commercial production of 40-350 metric tons per day of oil and 0.1-1.6 million cubic meters per day of natural gas. This is wonderful, but it is still far from a solution. But then again, what is hope?IH