Skip to comments.Scientist stirs the cauldron: oil, he says, is renewable
Posted on 11/19/2001 10:07:24 AM PST by Aurelius
SCIENTIST STIRS THE CAULDRON: OIL, HE SAYS, IS RENEWABLE
David L. Chandler,
Globe staff Date: May 22, 2001 Page: A14 Section: Health Science
It's as basic as the terminology people use in discussing sources of energy: On the one hand, there are "fossil fuels," left over from the decayed remains of millions of years worth of vegetation and destined to run out before long; on the other hand, there are "renewable" resources that could sustain human activities indefinitely.
But what if fossil fuels aren't fossils, but are actually renewable and virtually inexhaustible? To most people, that question may sound as reasonable as asking what if down were up, or the XFL were a big, classy hit. But a handful of scientists, led by the unconventional and always-controversial astronomer Thomas Gold of Cornell University, state just that. Move over, dinosaurs, they say: Petroleum has as much to do with fossils as the moon has to do with green cheese.
Gold's claim, spelled out in a book just out in paperback as well as a talk at the Harvard Coop last week, challenges basic premises of the energy debate, from environmentalists' warning of oil's eventual decline to President George W. Bush's current talk about an energy shortage. Just dig deep enough, Gold says, and almost anyone can strike oil.
As one might expect, most mainstream petroleum geologists view this contrarian point of view with either scorn and derision, or the studied indifference reserved for flat-Earthers.
"We're very familiar with Tommy Gold," said Larry Nation, a spokesman for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. Geologists in that field, he said, "are more open-minded than you might think. They're a pretty independent bunch, or there wouldn't be so many dry holes." But most of them draw the line at Gold's theory.
At least one successful natural gas geologist, though, has sided with Gold's unorthodox concept, which, in essence, goes like this: Far from being the product of decayed vegetation, petroleum is being manufactured constantly in the Earth's crust. It is made from methane, or natural gas, the simplest of all the hydrocarbon fuels, as it bubbles upward from the depths of the Earth where it has existed since the planet's formation more than 4 billion years ago.
As it rises, the methane is consumed by billions of microbes that exist in a dark netherworld where sunlight never penetrates. While all surface life depends on sunlight, this deep, hidden realm of life - dubbed by Gold as "The Deep Hot Biosphere," which is also the title of his book on the subject - lives on the chemical energy of the methane itself. The biological traces found in all petroleum, he argues, is derived from this hidden form of life, not from the decayed plants usually thought to be petroleum's source.
If Gold's theory is right, then the Earth's "reserves" of petroleum and natural gas may be hundreds of times greater than most geologists now believe. Oil wells that are pumped dry will simply refill themselves as more methane and petroleum works its way upward to fill the emptied spaces in the rock. This has already happened in a few places, geologists agree - something that is hard to explain by the conventional theory, but lends support to Gold's unorthodox view.
Gold's theory "explains best what we actually encountered in deep drilling operations," said Robert Hefner III, a natural gas geologist who has discovered vast gas deposits in Oklahoma over the last three decades, tapped by some of the deepest wells ever drilled. According to conventional theory, it should be impossible for petroleum or natural gas to even exist at such depths, because the pressure and the high temperatures should have "cooked" the hydrocarbons away, Hefner said in an interview yesterday.
Echoing Gold's view, Hefner said that astronomers have found hydrocarbons such as methane on virtually every planet and moon ever studied, as well as the far corners of the universe - places where the conventional view of hydrocarbons forming from decaying remains of living organisms couldn't possibly apply. "It's unlikely [oil on Earth and other planets] got there in two different ways. . . . It probably came from the same place, not from squished fish and dinosaurs."
Few people have been convinced so far. A single test of the theory has been carried out - a pair of wells drilled more than 3 miles deep in Sweden, with results generally seen as inconclusive. Gold had hoped to produce a commercial oil well, which might have cinched his case, but only a few barrels worth of oil came up. He attributes the poor showing to clogging by fine magnetite particles that he said are consistent with his theory.
But Gold is no stranger to being out on a limb with a scientific theory. In 1967, he suggested that newly-discovered pulsing sources of radio emission in the sky were actually rapidly-spinning collapsed stars, called neutron stars. The idea was considered so outlandish that he was not even allowed to speak at a scientific meeting on the subject. Less than a year later, however, his idea had been universally accepted, and remains the textbook explanation for what became known as pulsars.
Not all his ideas have been on target. His prediction that the moon was covered with such fine dust that astronauts might sink right in and be swallowed up once they set foot there caused NASA great - and ultimately unnecessary - anxiety. Gold, however, still maintains that his basic point, that the moon is covered mostly by fine dust rather than solid rock, was actually proved right.
If Gold turns out to be right about "fossil" fuels, then the world will be a very different place: Almost anyplace on Earth could become an oil producer just by drilling deep enough, and petroleum won't ever run out in the foreseeable future.
But nobody's betting on it at this point. "Most petroleum geologists don't agree with his theory," Nation said. "But it's fun to talk about."
David Chandler can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For me, it will be almost as gratifying to see another case where the expert consensus of the experts in their area of expertize is shown to be so much bovine fertilizer. And if this isn't such a case? Well, we'll just have to wait till another one does come along.
This article also appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, June 11, 2001, under the title "Oil forever"
Laser drilling may be the answer as it can be done for a fraction of the cost of conventional drilling.
I don't know if there is anything to Gold's theory, either. But I sure as heck want to find out. If true, it would put those corrupt, murderous Bedouin creeps in the Middle East out of business real fast, and they'd soon find themselves riding around on camels again, living their traditional nomadic life.
If it has already happened in a few places then his theory can't be totally off the wall can it?
Here's a link to Thomas Gold's website
From the Wash Post link:
"...Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould has labeled Gold "one of America's most iconoclastic scientists." Says Gold himself: "In choosing a hypothesis there is no virtue in being timid ... [but] I clearly would have been burned at the stake in another age."
In 1947, fresh from pioneering wartime work on the development of radar, he used his research into high-frequency receptors to publish an entire new theory of mammalian hearing. Physiologists shrugged it off for 30 years. Until auditory technology evolved enough to prove him correct.
In 1959, when everybody thought the surface of the moon was frozen lava, Gold decided it was covered with dust from meteor impacts. Footprints of the Apollo astronauts will testify eternally that he was was right about that, too.
In 1967 astronomers trashed his suggestion that energy pulsating in the distant universe was the signature of collapsing stars. The subsequent observation of pulsars won two other scientists a Nobel Prize. And proved Gold correct.
In 1992 he predicted that Martian meteorites might contain fossilized microbes. Four years later NASA announced the same thing.
Now in a new book, "The Deep Hot Biosphere," Gold says the origin and bulk of biological life is not on the surface of the Earth where the birds and bunnies are, but deep within it. Moreover, that microscopic life force is fueled by an inexhaustible supply of petroleum constantly migrating outward from our planet's volcanic core."
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