We're running out of oil -- that's what the analysts say, as the price of crude hovers near record highs. But are we really? Not according to some controversial scientists. As far as they're concerned, the world will never run out of oil, because the earth is continuously creating it, deep down in the red-hot centre of the planet.
According to this theory, crude oil and other petroleum products are not the remnants of dinosaurs and plants from millions of years ago, squished into black goo by pressure and time. Proponents of the "abiotic" or inorganic theory of oil creation believe that oil and gas are formed by chemical processes going on at high temperatures deep in the earth, and that they seep up to where we find them.
Although this idea is rejected by most prominent geologists, its supporters are far from the usual collection of Internet conspiracy theorists and crackpots. Two of the most prominent proponents of this theory -- until their recent deaths -- were legendary astrophysicist Sir Frederick Hoyle and Cornell astronomer Thomas Gold.
In his 1998 book The Deep Hot Biosphere: The Myth of Fossil Fuels, Dr. Gold said he began thinking about how petroleum products were created because he knew that they occur on planets that have never had any organic life. He also noted that one of the earliest proponents of the theory was the famous Russian scientist Dimitri Mendeleev, the inventor of the periodic table of the elements.
Unfortunately for SUV drivers, however -- who might be attracted by the idea of an unlimited supply of oil -- there are a few problems with the theory. For one thing, so far no one has been able to prove it.
According to Mark Fowler, a biochemist with the Geological Survey of Canada in Calgary, a test well was drilled in Sweden in the 1980s based on the theory, but didn't come up with much -- about 80 barrels -- and the test was later abandoned. "They found small amounts of oil, but most of that could be explained by it seeping in from elsewhere," Dr. Fowler says. Some of it also appeared to have been "generated by the drill bit" during the exploration process. A second well was later drilled, which Dr. Gold said validated his inorganic theory, but he refused to release the results to other scientists for comment.
An Alberta geologist named Warren Hunt drilled a test well in the mid-1990s, financed by stock promoter Larry Ryckman, but the results were inconclusive and the venture later ran out of money. Scientists in Russia have also drilled several test wells which showed small amounts of oil and gas, but the results weren't enough to impress anyone in the actual oil and gas business.
That's the other problem with the theory, geologists say. Even if some petroleum products can be produced inorganically -- and a study last year by the Carnegie Institution showed that methane can be created with enough heat and pressure -- it's not clear that enough could be found in one place to make it worthwhile. "There's some grounds for believing that small amounts of methane could be created abiogenically," says Dr. Fowler, "but it's unlikely that's ever going to form an economic resource. It would be in such small amounts, and kind of spread out." In order to get at it, companies would also have to drill as much as 10 kilometres down into solid rock, whereas most conventional oil and gas wells only go one to three kilometres deep.