Wednesday, November 11, 2009
After my post Peak Oil a friend of mine Grant Lawrence asked me to comment on Abiotic Oil, or Oil from non-organic origins.
In every field there are certain terms that raise Red Flags among people experienced in the field. In the oil industry the term “Abiotic Oil” is the biggest one. Whenever I would hear an Investor say they were planning on investing in Abiotic Oil Exploration I knew that someone was trying to rip them off and they would never see their money again.
However just because scam artists are drawn to a concept doesn’t mean it is necessarily wrong, in fact for a good scam to work there has to be a kernel of truth in it.
The idea for Abiotic Oil came from Russia in the 19th century when little was known about how oil was formed, and research was hampered by the fact that 600ft was about the maximum depth that could be drilled.
Since then it has been elaborated on to take in new findings, but here is the basic argument.
When the Earth first formed it had a Abiotic Methane atmosphere, as the crust cooled some of this methane worked its way in to the porous rocks, later these porous rocks were pushed down to the top of the mantle where they were trapped at a layer between the mantle and the crust (technically in the Lithosphere), where the temperature and pressure is just below the point where methane will break into Hydrogen and Carbon.
This part is semi-verifiable through a number of processes, although they can all be picked apart individually, so I’m going to go out on a limb and say Abiotic Natural Gas or Methane is real and present in the Lithosphere.
The next part is where it gets tricky. This Methane in the Lithosphere is just below the temperature where it breaks down into Hydrogen and Carbon, if the parts of the Lithosphere folds down the heat and pressure become to much and the Carbon turns to Diamonds, if it folds up the Methane is exposed to the bottom of the crust which is moving over it at a rate of 6 inches a year.
This allows the natural gas to bond with elements in the Earths crust forming more complex hydrocarbons. The rocks containing these more complex hydrocarbons either move up or down. If they move up the cooler temperatures make these hydrocarbons stable, if they move down they break down and the cycle starts all over again.
Once the hydrocarbons are in a stable area the pressure below them pushes them higher, as they get higher, the rocks get cooler allow even more complex hydrocarbons to form until they get within a mile of the surface where they can turn into oil.
The hypothesis is much more detailed but that is the general argument for Abiotic Oil.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell Abiotic Oil from biotic oil so without actually drilling down to the bottom of the crust it is still just a hypothesis (it’s not a Theory until we are able to drill that deep to test it.)
When I was in the oil business I had read a few articles that claimed to have found natural Abiotic Oil in trace amounts, looking back now I can’t seem to find those. However, I do remember that they said it was only trace amounts.
Even if Abiotic Oil is real the question remains does the Earth produce enough of it to be meaningful?
The two examples of large Abiotic Oil fields that I have reviewed from investors prospectuses were both run by the Soviet Union’s KGB. That is a good reason to be suspicious.
The first (and I don’t have those prospectuses on hand so this is from memory) was a test well that the Soviet Union claimed to drill 10 miles down and recover trace amounts of Abiotic Oil before the well collapsed in on itself.
Since in the 20 years since the Soviet Union collapsed the deepest well drilled is roughly 7 miles deep and the KGB destroyed the site and the records I tend to discount this evidence.
The second example I came across that was being pitched to investors was Vietnam’s White Tiger Field. During the mid 70s there was a boycott on Soviet Oil, but not on Vietnam’s oil. The KGB ran a test program to recover Abiotic Oil in the White Tiger Field. The oil was processed by the KGB and Vietnam sold it. (After oil is processed it is impossible to determine the source.)
After the fall of the Soviet Union the KGB destroyed their oil wells in the field and their processing equipment. The White Tiger Field continues to produce oil but it has been shown to be formed from biotic processes.
The timing of the Soviet Experiments and lack of repeatability makes me doubt that they really discovered abiotic oil.
As far as Abiotic Oil being the savior of the Peak Oil Crisis, my experience makes me really doubt it. The evidence is just not there that there are meaningful reserves of Abiotic Oil.
But there is a scientific phrase: Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence. It could be there are large quantities of hydrocarbons between the 7-mile deep mark and the bottom of the crust (not crude oil the temperatures are too high) that could be used to fuel our economy.
If there is it will take tremendous resources to get them and those resources can be better spent on renewable energy resources that do less harm to the planet.