ARE FOSSIL FUELS AN OLD FASHIONED IDEA
by Ed Newman
WHOSE TIME HAS GONE?
Marketing & Advertising Manager, AMSOIL INC.
IN 1964 MY FAMILY MOVED from Cleveland to New Jersey. I was twelve
years old and we never had so much company in our lives. All our
relatives from the midwest came east to see us that year. I supposed
it was the new house they wanted to see, but later I understood
that it was really, among other things, the1964 -1965 New York
World's Fair that attracted all these kin.
If you add in all the class trips and scouting outings, I must
have gone two dozen times, which is just about what it takes to
really grasp the magnitude and scope of all that it contained.
The World's Fair had many memorable images, including the Unisphere,
itself the featured symbol of the Fair. Another memorable image
was that dinosaur at the Sinclair Pavillion. There's no way to
adequately describe the effect those Mustangs had on us at the
Ford Pavillion. In retrospect it seems only natural that the world's
largest industry, the auto industry, should be so prominently
There's no question Sinclair's dinosaur was a powerful symbol.
Dinosaurs had great power in the imaginations of young people.
Whatever became of the dinosaurs? That big green brontosaurus
graphically planted the answer in our minds. Yesterday's dinosaurs
are today's fuel. It is all part of the circle of life, you might
say. Yesterday's dead critters and ancient vegetation are producing
today's energy, hence our familiarity with the term "Fossil
Fuels" when speaking of gas and petroleum.
The only problem with the dino image is this: What if it's not
A 1986 cover story in the Atlantic Monthly, "The Origin of
Petroleum" by David Osbourne, shoots some rather large holes
in the fossil fuels theory. Osbourne is a journalist who brought
to a wider audience the ideas of a certain maverick astrophysicist
named Thomas Gold.
The occasion for Osbourne's article was a gigantic drilling operation
which was about to commence in the Siljan Ring, a site in northern
Sweden where a giant meteorite crashed into the earth 360 million
years ago. The drilling would take more than a year in an attempt
to penetrate deeper than three miles beneath the surface.
What Gold was attempting to prove was that petroleum is not a
scarce resource in danger of being soon depleted. This is because
oil and gas are not, according to Gold, byproducts of ancient
animal life. Gold was attempting to prove his theory that oil
and gas come from the earth itself.
Six arguments for drawing this conclusion are as follows:
1. The geographical distribution of oil seems derived from features
much larger in scale than individual sedimentary features.
2. The quantities of oil and gas available are hundreds of times
those estimated on the basis of biological origins.
3. The so-called "molecular fossils" found in oil and
claimed as proof of a biogenic origin are simply biological contaminants,
particularly bacteria that feed upon the petroleum.
4. Petroleum is largely saturated with hydrogen, whereas buried
biological matter should exhibit a deficiency of hydrogen.
5. Oil and gas are often rich in helium, an inert gas which biological
processes cannot concentrate.
6. The great oil reservoirs of the Middle East are in diverse
geological provinces. There is no unifying feature for the region
as a whole and, especially, no sediments rich in biological debris
that could have produced these immense concentrations of oil and
At the time I found the notions fascinating but not much more.
Last month, while reading an article titled "Why We'll Never
Run Out of Oil" (Discover, June 1999) I began wondering whatever
became of the Siljan Ring drilling program. Especially since the
Discover article, contrary to my expectations based on the title,
made no mention of these radical ideas whatsoever. In fact, the
article went into great detail explaining the organic origins
I suddenly became keenly interested in the results of that study
in Sweden. What did they find? Was it a bust? Utilizing the power
of the internet I did some of my own digging and came up with
what I was looking for. A simple search on Thomas Gold yielded
I learned that the one year Siljan Ring drilling program actually
took six years. The results have been interpreted and Gold has
published plenty to support his views, including a new book called
"The Deep Hot Biosphere". Gold's theories may be Copernican
in importance. (It was Copernicus, you may recall, who postulated
the radical notion that the earth goes round the sun and not vice
versa. We tend to forget that more than a century passed before
this became "common knowledge.")
I also found an excellent article explaining why it is not possible
for two separate notions of the origins of oil to co-exist. Gold's
article, "Can There Be Two Independent Sources of Commercial
Hydrocarbon Deposits, One Derived from Biological Materials, the
Other from Primordial Carbon and Hydrogen, Incorporated into the
Earth at its Formation?" is explicit and emphatic. There
can only be one origin of oil, Gold asserts.
If Gold is right, then the early scientists who called it "rock
oil" were much closer to the truth than the ad men who invented
the Sinclair mascot. But popular ideas die hard, and so it is
that while much has been written, to date the average person seems
aware of only the prevailing, somewhat discredited, view.
The point of all this confabulation? Two observations come immediately
to mind. First, there appears to be no reason today to be concerned
about oil supply. The alarm over an oil shortage in the seventies
was an event, not a trend. Oil is an abundant resource and the
future of our industry is not going to be jeopardized by oil shortages
other than those caused by political maneuverings.
Second, ideas that initially seem off the wall may have more merit
than first thought. When you open your minds, you'll discover
that extended drain intervals and synthetic lubricants offer more
profit potential than you originally imagined.
Article originally appeared in National Oil
and Lube News, September 1999
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