Oil Without End? Revisionists say oil isn't a fossil fuel. That could mean there's
lots more of it.
By Julie Creswell
February 17, 2003
(FORTUNE Magazine) – In the quiet waters off the coast of Vietnam lies an
area known as Bach Ho, or White Tiger Field. There, and in the nearby Black Bear
and Black Lion fields, exploration companies are drilling more than a mile into
solid granite--so-called basement rock--for oil. That's a puzzle: Oil isn't supposed
to be found in basement rock, which never rose near the surface of the earth where
ancient plants grew and dinosaurs walked. Yet oil is there. Last year the White
Tiger Field and nearby areas produced 338,000 barrels per day, and they are estimated
to hold about 600 million barrels more.
Oil and natural gas are being found in places no one expected and in greater quantities
than anticipated just a decade ago. In the mid-1990s the world's reserves of oil
were thought to total about 890 billion barrels. Today reserves stand at 1.1 trillion
barrels; the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that continued reserve growth, along
with undiscovered resources, could bring world oil estimates to as much as three
trillion barrels. "We're finding there are pretty substantial oil reserves
in the world," says Tom Ahlbrandt, world energy project chief at the USGS.
"New exploration and drilling technologies are making major new discoveries
The increase in reserve estimates is fueling the offbeat theories of maverick
scientists who believe that the expression "fossil fuels" is a misnomer
and that the earth contains a virtually endless supply of oil. Their ideas fly
in the face of the conventional wisdom that oil and natural gas come from the
remains of animals and plants buried millions of years ago. Subterranean heat
and pressure, mainstream science says, transformed this organic dreck into coal
and oil. Though their theories vary, the upstarts believe instead that wellsprings
of oil and gas lie deep within the earth, deeper than most oil companies drill,
and that supplies are constantly replenished. "With the White Tiger Field
in Vietnam, 90% of the production is coming from basement rock, where there were
never any fossils," argues C. Warren Hunt, a geologist in Calgary. "What
they've been teaching us in school about oil coming from fossils is wrong."
If true, the theories may mean we can stress less about running out of oil: There's
more where that came from! We can also worry less about tensions in the Middle
East or other hot spots cutting off our long-term supply. Problem is, most scientists
scoff at such theories. Oil companies maintain that even if the rebels are right,
the cost of searching for and extracting deep oil is prohibitive. ConocoPhillips,
the $38-billion-a-year giant, is drilling for oil in the basement rock of the
Black Lion Field off the coast of Vietnam. The company says the field is "unique,"
and the project is economically feasible because the oil is found at relatively
shallow levels in the basement rock. "If you drill deeper into basement rock,
you're probably going to find some hydrocarbons, but the chance of finding giant
fields is pretty small," says Roger Pinkerton, ConocoPhillips's recently
retired head of global exploration. He argues that there are much more accessible--albeit
environmentally controversial--sources that will yield plenty of oil for the foreseeable
future: to name two, the East Coast of the U.S. and Alaska's National Wildlife
Drilling deep into granite probably will never make economic sense unless the
industrialized world runs dangerously low on oil or is cut off from its supply.
But in the meantime scientists like Thomas Gold, a retired Cornell astronomy professor,
are content with poking holes in traditional theories surrounding fossil fuels.
It isn't just that hydrocarbons are being discovered in anomalous places like
basement rock; Gold notes that primitive hydrocarbons like methane are also found
in the atmospheres of Jupiter, Saturn, and other planets.
He laid out his theories, which he believes better address those inconsistencies,
in his 1998 book, The Deep Hot Biosphere: The Myth of Fossil Fuels. He argues
that natural gas and oil were created with the earth's formation and reside deep
inside the planet. Intense heat and pressure push them from there toward the surface.
As to why biological matter (what some deem fossils) is found in oil, Gold says
hydrocarbons attract a primitive type of microbe called archaea that lives deep
underground; it feeds on and contaminates the oil.
Controversial yet renowned, Gold is credited with figuring out in the 1960s that
pulsars were actually radio emissions from rapidly spinning collapsed stars, or
neutron stars. To test his non-fossil-fuel theory, Gold in the 1980s persuaded
the Swedish government to drill deep in a region near Siljan Lake, about 150 miles
north of Stockholm. The Swedes drilled about four miles into basement rock and
produced some 80 barrels of oil before the equipment became hopelessly gummed
up with putty-like iron oxide. To Gold and his supporters, those 80 barrels were
wet, black evidence that oil is no fossil fuel. Critics countered that the oil
was merely regurgitated fluid and contaminants from the drilling operation. Because
of equipment failures and ballooning costs, the project was abandoned.
Gold insists that the Siljan Lake results have led Soviet scientists and explorers
to drill more than 300 deep wells into basement rock since then, producing some
oil--but not vast amounts. (In fact, Russian scientists have entertained theories
similar to Gold's for as long as 100 years.) "The U.S. petroleum geological
community has a viewpoint firmly opposed to the notion of oil being of nonbiological
origin--but not the Russian, Chinese, or Vietnamese," says Gold. "The
U.S. has ignored completely the obviously very important Swedish results."
Gold isn't the only Western researcher to offer an alternative theory of where
oil comes from. Other scientists argue that seismic activity on the ocean floor
triggers a geochemical reaction between carbon and hydrogen that produces oil
and natural gas. Still others say that bacteria deep within the earth--not dead
dinosaurs--are making more oil every day. Scientists from around the world will
gather in London this June to debate the origins of oil at a conference sponsored
by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists and Britain's Institute of
At this point most scientists believe there's a perfectly logical explanation
for why fossil fuels can be found in basement rock. "These are fractured
rocks where the basement rock has been uplifted and the adjacent sedimentary rocks
[that hold decaying plants and animals] pushed into that space," says USGS
research geologist Gregory Ulmishek. He adds, "Geology is an empirical science,
and we are sure that all the oil and gas that has been found in 150 years of exploration
is of a biological nature." Of course, even long-standing scientific doctrines
have been proved wrong. There was that little dogma about the earth's being flat.