Originally published in Flourishing July/August 2013.
You may remember that back in the days of “peak oil” hysteria, I told you that the “peak oil” theory was hogwash. That was a safe proclamation on my part, because the oil industry had hardly scratched the surface of our planet, which as you know, has a diameter of about 8,000 miles. That’s still true today.
But now—with the exception of a few demagogic politicians—we all know that “peak oil” theory is indeed hogwash, because the evidence has been found under the very land we live on. The new technologies of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing are releasing natural gas, natural gas liquids, and oil from shale formations all across America, most notably for this discussion, in North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and yes, Kansas.
Some years ago, I read a book, The Deep Hot Biosphere1, written by the world-famous geophysicist Thomas Gold. I won’t pretend that I understood every word, but I was fascinated by Gold’s idea that hydrocarbons are produced abiotically (chemically, as opposed to biologically) in the earth’s mantle, and that they have a natural tendency to migrate toward the surface, the Earth’s pressures being what they are. Gold has been mocked and denounced as a crank by many, and most of the oil we know about probably does have biological origins. But, I’ve held my own judgment in abeyance, pending further scientific investigation. The thing that hooked me on Gold’s theory was the knowledge that planets within our own solar system are swamped– if that’s the right word—with abiotic hydrocarbons. Methane being the most prominent.
Then, in June of this year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) released a new study, Technically Recoverable Shale Oil and Shale Gas Resources: An Assessment of 137 Shale Formations in 41 Countries Outside the United States. This study doesn’t prove—nor does it disprove—Gold’s theory of abiotic oil.
But, it does admit that the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2011 was off in its estimate of shale oil deposits by a factor of ten (32 billion barrels in the 2011 report vs. 345 billion barrels in 2013). I’ll go out on a limb here, and suggest that two years from now, the number will have jumped again.
Do you remember Matt Ridley? He is the author of The Rational Optimist2, a book I’ve recommended on several occasions. He’s also a geneticist and a member of the House of Lords. More to the point, he maintains a terrific blog, which you may want to bookmark, http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog, and from which I now quote:
But there’s increasing doubt about whether all natural gas (which is 90% methane) comes from fermented fossil microbes. Some of it may be made by chemical processes deep within the earth.
The ocean floor accumulates not just the soft bodies of plankton, but also their shells and skeletons, made in effect from dissolved carbon dioxide, which build up to thick layers of rocks (such as the white cliffs of Dover in England).
When the ocean floor is driven down deep into the molten mantle, in the so-called subduction zones where continents are barging their way over the oceanic crust, this carbonate gets heated and pressurized. In 2004, Henry Scott and his colleagues at the University of Indiana discovered that ideal conditions exist for this carbonate to lose its oxygen and gain hydrogen instead, making methane on a massive scale.
In effect, this would recycle the Earth’s carbon dioxide by turning it back into the fuel from which it was made when burned or breathed. Maybe this explains why so much methane bubbles up through hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.
….Dr. Kutcherov3 thinks the evidence “confirms the presence of enormous, inexhaustible resources of hydrocarbons in our planet.” If he is right—and America’s new Deep Carbon Observatory aims to resolve the question in the next few years—natural gas may effectively never run out. (emphasis added)
Within this blog post Matt Ridley cites a March 2013 article4 published in the Journal of Petroleum Technology to the effect that Dr. Thomas Gold, who passed away in 2004, may have been right after all; at least about abiotic methane. mh
The Deep Hot Biosphere, Thomas Gold, Springer, 1998.
The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley, Harper, 2010.
Hydrocarbon, ed. Vladimir Kutcherov and Anton Kolesnikov, University of Stockholm, ebook3000, 2013.