So now I read that there’s an easy solution to the peak-oil problem after all. We can just manufacture the stuff. Or, just wait a few minutes and let the Earth do it for us.
A publicist sent me a press release this week for a new book called The Great Oil Conspiracy, by Jerome Corsi. And already I’ve learned so much about oil that I never knew before.
Like, for instance, that German scientists came up with something called the Fischer-Tropsch Process – a formula “unlocking the secrets to how oil is formed” – that the Nazis used to produce synthetic oil, thus explaining how a country with little oil of its own could wage a fuel-intensive, multiyear, multifront war. Or that oil isn’t actually the product of millions of years of decay of fossilized biological debris, but rather the result of a chemical process that is continually occurring deep inside the Earth, by which new oil pools will continue to bubble up toward the surface where we can get to them, presumably for (more or less) eternity.
Or that the U.S. government has known about all of this since the end of the Second World War, but it wasn’t (and still isn’t) in the interest of its long-time bed-buddy, Big Oil, to let the world know that the increasingly expensive stuff they’re selling us is not so rare and rapidly depleting after all, and that even if it was, we could actually just make the stuff ourselves.
Now, not to sound paranoid, but have you noticed that you can spell “Corsi” using letters found within “conspiracy”? This is the same man who (literally) wrote the book on John Kerry and Swift Boat, who questions Barack Obama’s U.S. citizenship, who believes someone planted explosives to bring down the Twin Towers. So, maybe not the best guy to turn to for the hard science of where oil comes from.
But Mr. Corsi’s extreme views on oil, it turns out, have a basis in legitimate scientific research.
The Fischer-Tropsch process is real. It doesn’t create petroleum from thin air – a carbon-based feedstock, usually low-grade coal, is needed – but still, it works.
The Germans did make Fischer-Tropsch fuels from coal in the Second World War, and vehicles in South Africa have run on them for years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has looked at Fischer-Tropsch as a relatively clean-burning alternative fuel, especially as a replacement for diesel in the U.S. trucking fleet.
The problem is, Fischer-Tropsch coal-to-liquids plants are expensive to build, and the process itself is pretty CO2-intensive. But they’re working on it.
Meanwhile, the abiogenic (or abiotic) theory of petroleum origin – which postulates that oil is produced through an ongoing chemical process deep in the Earth’s mantle – has been kicking around for more than a century. Soviet scientists did extensive research into the hypothesis in the 1950s and 1960s, but because they were writing in Russian and behind the Iron Curtain, their work was little known to Western scientists, until Thomas Gold took up the cause during the late-1970s energy crisis.
Mr. Gold, a highly respected astrophysicist at Cornell University, came by the abiogenic theory cosmically. Noting that hydrocarbons are found elsewhere in the solar system – for instance, in the atmospheres of the gas-giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, where there’s essentially no chance of fossils of carbon-based life forms – it’s pretty clear that petroleum-like gases can form in the total absence of biological decay. Why not on Earth, too?
But on this planet anyway, the abiogenic theory still lacks much scientific evidence to support it. Numerous attempts, by Mr. Gold and others, to discover deep oil deposits based on the theory have proven largely fruitless, finding only uneconomically small amounts of oil, the origin of which is widely disputed by the theory’s critics.
So, safe to say that none of this is going to redefine the oil industry – or oil prices – overnight. Not even close. The present reality is that we only know of so much oil that is still in the ground, and those reserves are getting harder and more expensive to exploit.
Still, there was a time when the science behind atomic energy was unproven, unobservable, dismissed by many experts as mere modern-day alchemy.
Now it provides nearly 15 per cent of the world’s electricity.
So maybe, just maybe, the inevitable march to shortages and skyrocketing prices – as the Peak Oil theory suggests – shouldn’t be taken as the only possible vision for the oil market’s long-term future.