Robert Matthews: Oil’s origins revisited.
Once upon a time, clever people scared themselves by trying to predict the end of the world. Sir Isaac Newton’s best estimate, for example – recently uncovered in archived manuscripts – was some time in the year 2060 [Yet more Newtonian idiocy].
Today smart people seem intent on scaring all of us by trying to predict an event no less apocalyptic for modern economies: the arrival of “peak oil”, after which output of crude oil falls into terminal decline.
Last week it was the turn of Fatih Birol, chief economist to the International Energy Agency (IEA), who argued that conventional crude output could plateau in 2020. How seriously we should take this is anyone’s guess. Only last month, the IEA itself was claiming the turning point would be 2030 – 10 years later than its current estimate. With Opec having just imposed its largest-ever cut in oil production, the IEA may well have to issue another estimate next month.
Like predictions of the Final Trump, attempts to guess when oil will run out have a long and sorry history. In 1874, the chief geologist of Pennsylvania, then America’s leading oil-producing state, estimated the nation only had enough of the stuff to last around four years. Nowadays, there seem to be almost as many views as experts, with some claiming peak oil may have been passed some years ago and others – as this newspaper reported recently – insisting it lies far in the future.
In the end, all the arguments centre on simple supply and demand: is there enough exploitable oil in the ground to meet projected needs? So far the ingenuity of petroleum engineers has kept the black gold flowing through advances in the technology of finding and extracting oil. But it seems obvious that it must run out eventually; after all, there’s no more of the stuff being made deep underground. Or is there?
According to the textbooks, oil is the product of 150 to 200 million- year-old fossilised remains of marine organisms being transformed by the combined effect of bacterial action, heat and pressure. But according to some scientists, there may be other sources of oil, created by different means, which remain undiscovered simply because no one expects to find them.
During the 1950s, a team led by the Soviet geologist Dr Nikolai Kudryavtsev of the All-Union Geological Research Institute pointed out that crude oil is sometimes found at sites with no obvious connection to fossilised organisms – such as the Siljan Ring structure of central Sweden, where tar and oil seep out of pure crystalline granite.
According to Dr Kudryavtsev and his colleagues, these puzzling discoveries suggest that oil can also be formed in the absence of living organisms – for example, from hydrocarbons trapped inside the Earth during its formation around 4.5 billion years ago.