Oil Doesn’t Come from Squashed Ferns and Fish??
Biot #182: March 04, 2005
Thomas "Tommy" Gold, the brilliant and controversial 20th century Viennese-born science figure and professor emeritus of astronomy at Cornell University, died at the age of 84 years eight months ago on June 22, 2004 at Cayuga Medical Center, Ithaca, N.Y., after a long battle with heart disease. His Cornell obituary states: “Gold's reputation as a Renaissance man was surpassed only by his penchant for unconventional theories -- from the origin of the universe to the source of petroleum. Few scientists ever attempt what Gold made a career of, staking their reputations on ideas that radically challenge the methods and assumptions of an entire discipline.” (1-2) Fortunately, Gold has left many writings for posterity, including ones available on his still-functioning homepage website (3) and his book titled “The Deep Hot Biosphere (2001), which no Barnes and Noble or Borders Booksellers in Chicagoland currently carry in their stores. (4)
In his later years, Gold challenged the belief, deeply held by American and British geoscientists, that oil is fluid concentrated from huge amounts of vegetation and animal remains that have been buried in the sediments over hundreds of million of years. Instead, he and many other geophysicists, most notably in Russia and China (5), for decades have been providing evidence that oil and natural gas are generated from hydrocarbon substances in the Earth’s crust that were “brought in from space when the Earth was formed.” (6)
When asked what first prompted him to think that oil and natural gas are generated from hydrocarbons present at Earth’s formation, Gold replied, “The astronomers have been able to find that hydrocarbons, as oil, gas and coal are called, occur on many other planetary bodies. They are a common substance in the universe. You find [large quantities of hydrocarbons] in the kind of gas clouds that made systems like our solar system…Is it reasonable to think that our little Earth, one of the planets, contains oil and gas for reasons that are all its own and that these other bodies have it because it was built into them when they were born?” (7)
When the interviewer replied, “That question makes a lot of sense. After all, they didn’t have dinosaurs and ferns on Jupiter to produce oil and gas,” Gold said, “That’s right. Yet, for some reason my theory was not heard. The theory that it was all made from fossils ha[s] become so firmly established that when the astronomers had perfectly definitive evidence on most of the other planets, it was just ignored, especially by the petroleum geologists who had, by then, called these things, ‘fossil fuels.’ So once they had a name, then every body believed it.”(8-9)
What IS the evidence for each of the two theories of the origin of oil? Two main observations have favored the biogenic (ferns and fish) origin of petroleum.
1. “Petroleum contains groups of molecules [e.g., “hopanoids,” a material coming from bacterial cell-walls], which are clearly identified as the breakdown products of complex, but common, organic molecules that occur in plants, and that could not have been built up in a non-biological process.” (6)
2. “Petroleum is mostly found in sedimentary deposits and only rarely in the primary rocks of the crust below; even among the sediments, it favors those that are geologically young. In many cases such sediment appears to be rich in carbonaceous materials that were interpreted as of biological origin, and as source material for the petroleum deposit.” (6)
The following four observations favor the abiogenic or “energy fuels” (present at origin of Earth) origin of petroleum:
1. “Petroleum and methane are found frequently in [surface] geographic patterns of long lines or arcs, which are related more to deep-seated large-scale structural features of the [deep] crust, than to the smaller scale patchwork of the sedimentary deposits.” Gold explains this idea through two examples: the distribution of oil deposits in the Middle East and in Indonesia.
Oil fields of the Middle East, showing continuous region from Turkey to Oman. The dots represent individual fields, and the size of each dot indicates the magnitude of the field.
Source: Thomas Gold: “The Origin of Methane (and Oil) in the Crust of the Earth” at: http://people.cornell.edu/pages/tg21/usgs.html.
a. The Middle East: “Everyone now thinks of Arabia, the Persian Gulf, Iran and Iraq as being the oil region of the world. It is indeed one connected large patch that is oil-rich for 2,700 km from the mountains of Eastern Turkey down through the Tigris Valley of Iraq and through the Zagros Mountains of Iran into the Persian Gulf, into Saudi Arabia and further south into Oman. There is no feature that the geology or the topography of this entire large region has in common, and that would give any hint why it would all be oil and gas rich. The various oil deposits are in different types of rock, in rocks of quite different ages, and they are overlaid by quite different caprocks. They are in a topography of folded mountains in Turkey and the high Zagros mountains of Iran, in the river valley of the Tigris in Iraq, in the Persian Gulf itself, in the flat plains of Arabia and in the mountainous regions of Oman…These hydrocarbon-bearing formations represent times so different from each other that there would have no similarity in the climate or in the types of vegetations that existed there during deposition, just as there is no similarity in the reservoir rocks or in the caprocks of the different regions now. Yet it is a striking fact that the detailed chemistry of these oils is similar over the whole of this large region. Surely this is an example of the need to invoke a larger scale phenomenon for the cause of the oil supply than any scale we can see in the geology of the outer crust.” (6)
b. Indonesia: “The island arc of Indonesia, of which Java and Sumatra are the main components, belongs to a much larger pattern of an arc, that stretches from the western tip of New Guinea through these Indonesian islands in to the Indian Ocean, through the Andaman Islands up into the Irrawaddi valley of Burma, and on into the high mountains of Southern China, over a total length of 6,000 km. That it is one connected arc all the way cannot be doubted because the frequency of earthquakes along the whole of this arc is hundreds of times greater than outside. Along the whole of this arc petroleum is very abundant. But at one end this arc is made up of volcanic islands; at the other end, in Burma and China, it is continental materials with folded mountains. Again, there are great age differences and differences in every aspect of the geology in which the oilfields exists; but here we have a unifying feature, namely the belt of earthquakes and volcanoes which stretches over this entire length, and which points to causes in the deeper crust or in the mantle.” (6)
2. “Hydrocarbon-rich areas tend to be hydrocarbon-rich at many different levels [in the earth], corresponding to quite different geological epochs, and extending down to the crystalline basement that underlies the sediment. An invasion of an area by hydrocarbon fluids from below could better account for this than the chance of successive deposition.” (6) Also, such extrusion of hydrocarbons periodically over time from below could explain the findings of organic debris, such as ferns, saber tooth tigers, and even human fossil skulls, in seams of coal (think La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles, California). Gold writes: “The coal we dig is hard, brittle stuff [but] it was once a liquid, because we find embedded in the middle of a six-foot seam of coal such things as a delicate wing of some animal or a leaf of a plant. They are undestroyed, absolutely preserved, with every cell in that fossil filled with exactly the same coal as all the coal on the outside. A hard, brittle coal is not going to get into each cell of a delicate leaf without destroying it. So obviously that stuff was a thin liquid at one time which gradually hardened…[p]etroleum…gradually becomes stiffer and harder [and] that is the only logical explanation for the origin of coal. The fact that coal contains fossils does not prove that it is a fossil fuel; it proves exactly the opposite. Those fossils you find in coal prove that coal is not made from those fossils. How could you take a forest and mulch it all up so that it is a completely featureless big black substance and then find one leaf in it that is perfectly preserved? That is absolute nonsense.” (6)
3. Hydrocarbons are found in areas where no sediments have ever been deposited. “Methane [a primordial hydrocarbon] is found in many locations where a biogenic origin is improbable or where biological deposits seem inadequate: in great ocean rifts in the absence of any substantial sediments; in fissures in igneous and metamorphic rocks, even at great depth; in active volcanic regions, even where there is a minimum of sediments; and there are massive amounts of methane hydrates (methane-water ice combinations) in permafrost and ocean deposits, where it is doubtful that an adequate quantity and distribution of biological source materials is present.” (6)
4. “The regional association of hydrocarbons with the inert gas helium, and a higher level of natural helium seepage in petroleum-bearing regions, has no explanation in the theories of biological origin of petroleum.” (6)
Where then did hopanoids (material from bacterial cell-walls), and other molecules found in oil deposits come from, if they didn’t come from squashed ferns? Gold rewords the question: “How much of the biological imprint of material in the sediments is due to surface life and how much to life at depth? Life at depth???? What does Gold mean here?
Gold explains in a 1992 article: “We are familiar with two domains of life on the Earth: the surface of the land and the body of the oceans. Both domains share the same energy source: namely sunlight, used in the process of photosynthesis in green plants and microorganisms. In this process the molecules of water and of carbon dioxide are dissociated, and the products of this then provide chemical energy that supports all the other forms of life [you and me]….This was the general concept about life and sources of its energy until approximately twelve years ago , when another domain of life [anaerobic bacteria called ‘thermophiles’] was discovered. This new domain, the ‘ocean vents’, found first in some small regions of the ocean floor, but now found to be widespread (including Monterey Bay and Yellowstone), proved to have an energy supply for its life that was totally independent of sunlight and all surface energy sources. There the energy for life was derived from chemical processes, combining fluids—liquids and gasses—that came up continuously from cracks in the ocean floor [communicating with the mantle beneath the Earth’s crust], with substances available in the local rocks and in the ocean water.” (10)
In other words, bacterial life in this third deep-Earth life domain gets its energy from converting methane and hydrogen into carbon dioxide and water, all in the absence of sunlight. Gold continues: “The pore-spaces in the [Earth’s] rocks are quite sufficient to accommodate bacterial life [too], and the rocks themselves may contain many of the chemicals that can be nutrients together with the ascending [hydrocarbon] fluids. …[A]ctive bacterial life deep in the solid crust could have gone largely unnoticed,” in the same way that bacterial life in the ocean vents went unnoticed until secondary larger life forms that fed on the thermophiles drew scientists’ attention. The answer to the origin of the hopanoids is that they come from the deep-Earth bacteria.
How widespread is life based on internal energy sources of the Earth? “We do not know at present how to make a realistic estimate of the subterranean mass of material now living, but all that can be said is that one must consider it possible that it is comparable to all the living mass at the surface. Together with this consideration would go the consideration of the cumulative amount of chemical activity that could be ascribed to the deep biosphere, and with that the importance it may have had for the chemical evolution of the crust, the oceans and atmosphere, and the development of the surface biology.” (10)
Editor’s Note: Understanding the origin of petroleum is not an arcane subject of interest only among academics. Rather, it has vast political and economic ramifications including refuting the idea that oil is a finite resource found only in relation to sedimentary rock in certain areas of the world such as the Middle East. If Gold is correct, as he has been so many times before, imponderable amounts of oil are constantly being manufactured from hydrocarbon sources constantly upstreaming from the Earth’s upper mantle (beneath the Earth’s crust) by a vast domain of bacterial life. Indeed, we now know that oil and gas fields are not running out at the expected time, but seem to be recharging from below. (11) Probably the most frustrating aspect of this topic is that American geoscientists have shamelessly ignored the boatloads of evidence and seem locked into studying “fossil fuels” instead of “energy fuels.”
(1) “Thomas Gold, Cornell astronomer and brilliant scientific gadfly, dies at 84,” Cornell News, June 22, 2004, available at:http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/June04/Thomas_Gold_obit.hrs.html.
(2) Thomas Gold curriculum vita at: http://www.people.cornell.edu/pages/tg21/vita.html.
(3) Thomas Gold: “The Deep, Hot Biosphere: The Myth of Fossil Fuels,” Springer-Verlag Telos (2001).
(4) “Thomas Gold” homepage at the Cornell University website: http://people.cornell.edu/pages/tg21/.
(5) J.F. Kenney and V.A. Krayushkin, et al: “Gas Resources Corporation” website at: http://www.gasresources.net/.
(6) Thomas Gold: “The Origin of Methane (and Oil) in the Crust of the Earth, USGS Professional Paper 1570, The Future of Energy Gasses, 1993, available at: http://people.cornell.edu/pages/tg21/usgs.html.
(7) “Natural Gas, Oil Occur Naturally & Are Not a Limited Fossil Fuel, Says Prominent Scientist,” American Free Press interview, October 28 ?year, available at: http://www.americanfreepress.net/RFA_Articles/
(8) Martin J.S. Rudwick: “The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Palaeontology,” 2 nd edition, University of Chicago Press, 1976, pp. 1-2.
(9) Indeed, paleontologist Martin Rudwick pointed out years ago that the original meaning of the word “fossil” was “dug up,” NOT objects that today we would recognize as the fossil remains of organisms. (7) Conrad Gesner (1516-1565), “like all his contemporaries and his predecessors back to Aristotle, used ‘fossil’ to describe ‘any distinctive object or material dug up from the earth or found lying on the surface,’” wrote Rudwick in “The Meaning of Fossils.” “Not until the early 19th century was the word ‘fossil,’ without qualification, finally restricted to” what we know as fossils today, even though “today a relic of its former breadth of meaning is still preserved in the use of the term “fossil fuels” for coal and oil.” (7) One increasingly hears the use of a new term, “energy fuels,” instead of “fossil fuels,” which will go a long way in breaking up the locked in thinking about the origin of petroleum.
(10) Thomas Gold: “The Deep, Hot Biosphere” July 1992, available at: http://www.people.cornell.edu/pages/tg21/DHB.html.
(11) Thomas Gold: “Recharging of oil and gas fields.” Available at http://www.people.cornell.edu/pages/tg21/recharging.