Regardless of Its Veracity, The Theory of Abiotic Oil Formation Does Not Negate The Peak Oil Hypothesis

Throughout history mankind has produced many theories to explain the origin of oil; Aristotle, for example, believed that petroleum was “the result of exhalations from the deep earth.” By the mid 18th century theories of biotic oil formation—that oil and coal<!–[if supportFields]> XE “coal” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> originate from biological remnants subjected to the heat and pressure of the earth—were already entering the mainstream. These biotic theories remain the most prevalent today, and have proved the most successful in predicting locations of large oil reserves. However, in the 1950’s, theories of an abiotic origin of oil, first proposed in the early decades of that century, were revived in Russia<!–[if supportFields]> XE “Russia” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>. Recently, proponents of this theory have stated that deep in the Earth’s mantle there lie vast oceans of oil that make preparations for a peak in oil production a waste of effort. However, Höök et al. (2010b) state that regardless of the viability of the abiotic oil<!–[if supportFields]> XE “abiotic oil” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> formation theory, such reserves would at most only delay the onset of peak oil, as a resource is still considered finite as long as extraction is more rapid than renewal. Therefore, unless abiotic processes create oil on the order of several hundred thousand barrels a day, they will not be able to help us stave off a peak in oil production. —Steven Erickson
Höök, M., Bardi, U., Feng, L., Pang, X., 2010b. Development of oil formation theories and their importance for peak oil. Marine and Petroleum Geology 27, 1995–2004.

          Höök et al. surveyed and summarized the research on the origins of both biotic and abiotic oil<!–[if supportFields]> XE “abiotic oil” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> formation theories and the empirical evidence present for both. After analyzing these data, they reexamine the argument for peak oil taking into account potential reserves created by abiotic oil formation, concluding that unless the “strong” theory of abiotic oil production is true—that is that abiotic oil processes create large quantities of oil over short periods of time—then peak oil will at the very most delay the onset of this production peak.
          Much evidence has been provided to show that hydrocarbons are the result of biotic processes. Chemical analysis has shown a link between chlorophyll in living plants and porphyrin pigments—a type of nitrogen<!–[if supportFields]> XE “nitrogen” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> found in fossil fuel reserves—which originate primarily from chlorophylls. Carbon isotopes<!–[if supportFields]> XE “isotope” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> found in hydrocarbons have also been shown through mass spectroscopy to be the same isotopes favored by living organisms, and oil has also been shown to contain many biomarkers and chemical fossils. Furthermore, biodegradation caused by microorganisms has been shown to result in petroleum being transformed into heavy oil. Höök et al. explain that these theories on degradation could explain all petroleum formation.
          The theory of abiotic oil<!–[if supportFields]> XE “abiotic oil” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> generation, supported primarily by chemists with little geological experience, relies primarily on experimental work that suggests that under high pressures and heat, hydrogen and carbon combine to create hydrocarbon chains. However, drillings in Sweden<!–[if supportFields]> XE “Sweden” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> in the 1980s, which thus far have been the most serious attempt at proving abiotic oil formation, failed to find any recoverable amount of oil.
Some scientists propose that the fact that some oil reservoirs exist in rock formations not traditionally associated with oil is proof that abiotic oil<!–[if supportFields]> XE “abiotic oil” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> generation does exist, however geological studies show that these reservoirs were created by migration of oil from sedimentary source rock nearby through commonly understood mechanisms. Another argument proposed by abiotic oil supporters is that these abiotic oil reserves are at great and largely unexplored depths, but to this date very little oil has been found at depths greater than 5000 m. Furthermore, studies show that oil generally converts into natural gas at temperatures greater than 200 °C, temperatures that generally exist below 5000 m. Höök et al. conclude from their review that although it is possible to create abiotic oil in the laboratory, there has thus far been no evidence suggesting any sort of commercially viable accumulation of abiotic oil in the earth’s mantle.
Höök et al. close their paper by addressing what effect, if any, abiotic oil<!–[if supportFields]> XE “abiotic oil” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> formation would have on peak oil. Their main point revolves around the idea of what it means for a resource to be finite. The authors state that a resource is renewable if and only if its rate of replenishment is greater than its rate of depletion. They use the production of whale oil in the 19th century to illustrate this point. Although whales are able to reproduce, the resource was still finite as whales were killed much more quickly than they could reproduce, causing a very clear peak in whale oil production. They then go on to divide abiotic oil generation theories into two main groups, a weak theory and a strong theory. The weak theory states that oil forms abiotically at rates similar to those assumed in conventional biogenic theories, while the strong theory states that oil reservoirs are replaced more quickly than we deplete them. This rate of replacement would be about five orders of magnitude greater than what is known in conventional oil formation theory.
If the weak theory holds true, then it makes little difference whether or not oil is generated biotically or a abiotically, as we are still consuming petroleum at a rate faster than it is being replaced, and a peak in oil production is inevitable. If the strong theory were true, then a production peak could potentially be put off indefinitely. Unfortunately, the authors state that even the most optimistic supporter of abiotic oil<!–[if supportFields]> XE “abiotic oil” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> has no ability to prove such claims. Therefore, even if abiotic oil generation is real and has created large reserves deep in the Earth’s mantle, its effect on the arrival of peak oil production would ultimately be minimal.

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