Re: Rapid formation of petroleum: article from Associates for Biblical Research

From: Don Winterstein <>
Date: Mon Apr 18 2005 - 08:52:16 EDT

Hon Wai Lai wrote:

"Is the mechanism involved in the formation of natural gas very similar
to the formation of crude oil?...."

I couldn't find any ABR newsletters more recent than 2004 at the referenced site, so I can make only a minimally informed response. Furthermore, I specialized in seismology research, not geochemistry, so what I know about the latter has come primarily through osmosis during my 25 years with a major oil company.

Inorganic processes in the subsurface are known to be capable of generating methane. Thomas Gold of Cornell has also proposed that inorganic processes can generate petroleum. I don't know his details, but it's easy to find references to Gold's work if you want to pursue that. So far industry scientists believe Gold's hypotheses lack support from subsurface data.

The standard model in the industry is that all significant quantities of subsurface oil and gas have been cooked by geologic processes out of dead organisms, primarily phytoplankton. (There are shallow deposits of biologically generated gas, but these are of relatively little commercial significance.) There is a lot of evidence supporting this standard model and at present little or no good evidence opposing it. It's what everyone whose job it is to find oil uses.

The organisms typically are deposited in fine-grained marine sediments (muds), compressed and heated as depth of burial increases, and chemically altered to generate oil. Such sediments become shales after compression. The oil is typically squeezed out of the shale primarily by pressure (and associated diagenesis) and flows into neighboring permeable rocks both above and below the shale. If the flow is upward, and there is no impermeable barrier, the oil will find its way to the surface and be lost. Geologists believe most oil ever generated has been lost in this way.

Oil trapped under impermeable barriers will continue to undergo chemical alteration as depth of burial and temperature increase. When pressure and temperature exceed known limits, the oil converts to gases which, when sufficiently cooked, become predominantly methane. There are also varying fractions of CO2 and H2S.

Study of fossil pollen grains obtained from wells is important for oil exploration on some prospects, because analysts can tell from pollen color what subsurface rock temperatures have been reached. If temperatures have exceeded the limits for the oil-gas transition, the exploration prospect may be abandoned if the company is not interested in gas. Other techniques, such as analysis of vitrinite reflectance, are used as well to judge the level of hydrocarbon maturation.

As far as I know, no knowledgeable practicing geochemist expects gas to be converted back into oil by natural processes.


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Hon Wai Lai<>
  To: 'ASA'<>
  Sent: Sunday, April 17, 2005 1:57 AM
  Subject: Rapid formation of petroleum: article from Associates for Biblical Research

  Is the mechanism involved in the formation of natural gas very similar
  to the formation of crude oil?
  From my limited knowledge of chemistry, it seems to me the creation of
  methane from inorganic materials under high pressure in the laboratory
  (maybe with added catalyst) is a well established fact. So what's new
  about Prof. Herschbach's findings?

  Vol. 5, Issue 4
  April 15, 2005<>

  Feature Article

  Stephen Caesar

  "The Rapid Formation of Petroleum"

  Most geologists believe that the world's supply of petrochemicals such
  as oil and natural gas comes from the decay of ancient plant and animal
  matter over the course of millions of years (O'Donnell 2005: 10). Those
  who adhere to a Genesis-centered view of origins, on the other hand,
  have maintained that petroleum was formed rapidly during a
  high-pressure, catastrophic event. Recent research suggests that the
  latter group may be correct.

  Dudley Herschbach, research professor of science at Harvard and
  recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry, published an article in
  the autumn 2004 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of
  Sciences describing how researchers created methane (one of the most
  common petrochemicals) rapidly under high-pressure conditions. The
  scientists combined three abiotic (non-living) materials - water,
  limestone, and iron oxide - and then crushed them together "with the
  same intense pressure found deep below the earth's surface. This process
  created methane (CH4), the major component of natural gas," reported
  Harvard Magazine (ibid. 10-11).

  Prof. Herschbach actually revived an earlier theory that had fallen out
  of favor. For quite some time, Russian and Ukrainian geologists had
  maintained that reactions of water with other abiotic compounds deep
  below the surface of the earth produce petroleum, which then bubbles up
  toward the surface of the planet. Mainstream science rejected this
  theory, since petroleum contains organic matter, a fact which currently
  leads scientists to believe that petroleum derives from once-living
  matter. However, Cornell astrophysicist Thomas Gold, who embraced the
  Russian/Ukrainian theory in a book titled The Deep, Hot Biosphere,
  proposed that the organic matter found in petroleum is actually waste
  matter from microbes that feed on the petrochemicals as they head upward
  to the earth's surface (ibid. 11).

  The scientific world ignored the book, but not Herschbach, who contacted
  Dr. Russell Hemley, a Harvard Ph.D. who now works at the Geophysical
  Laboratory at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC, and suggested
  that the two of them conduct the methane experiment. They were joined by
  Henry Scott of Indiana University and other scientists, and together
  they created the same conditions found 140 miles below the earth's
  surface. At this depth, pressures mount to more than 50,000 times those
  at sea level. According to Herschbach, "The experiment showed it's easy
  to make methane" (ibid.).

  Harvard Magazine reported: "The new findings may serve to corroborate
  other evidence, cited by Gold, that some of the earth's reservoirs of
  oil appear to refill as they're pumped out, suggesting that petroleum
  may be continually generated" (ibid.). With results like that, it is no
  wonder that the magazine subtitled its article "Hydrocarbon Heresy."

  O'Donnell, E. 2005. "Rocks into Gas." Harvard Magazine 107, no. 4.

  Stephen Caesar holds his master's degree in anthropology/archaeology
  from Harvard. He is a staff member at Associates for Biblical Research
  and the author of the e-book The Bible Encounters Modern Science,
  available at<>.
Received on Mon Apr 18 08:54:05 2005

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Mon Apr 18 2005 - 08:54:08 EDT