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Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Gloom and Doom Continued

Following close on the heels of my recent Gloom and Doom posts about energy shortages in the future, my admirable correspondant Christopher has been kind enough to answer a question I had. I aksed about the work and theories of astrophysicist Thomas Gold:

One question, there is an astro-physicist called Gold who questions the whole biological degradation theory for petroleum. He says the stuff was more or less chemically produced at the start of the planet. He also suggests that there may well be an enormous quantity deep down, and that the deposits we know about are like cisterns that fill up from time to time due to interior pressure. Is he a 'nut', or could there be something in this?

First, a bit of disclosure: I am not a geologist and I haven’t read his book, “The Deep Hot Biosphere” but I have read a few of his papers.

I don’t think one can look at his C.V. and summarily dismiss him as a nut. The issue comes down to whether you consider his theory a replacement for, or a supplement to, the existing theory. Obviously, the theory has to be able to stand on its own but the burden of proof is different.

If his theory is a replacement, then one also needs to explain why the current theory is wrong. This is particularly problematic since the existing theory is backed up by laboratory experiments, fits well with existing geology knowledge base, and has been successful in finding deposits all over the world. In his own words: “If the main supply of the commercial quantities of hydrocarbons, both gas and oil, is indeed derived from mantle depths and from materials that were incorporated in the Earth at its formation, then many points in petroleum geology and in other aspects of geology will have to be reconsidered.” I would also like to stress “and in other aspects of geology”. A lot of established geology has to be wrong for him to be right. This is a very large burden of proof.

If his theory is a supplement, then the question becomes what are the relative magnitudes of each mechanism. However, given the success the current theory has in describing the existing deposits, it’s hard to make a case for his theory being a significant, much less a dominant, factor. It would explain some trace deposits that the existing theory doesn’t, but it wouldn’t be a factor as far as depletion is concerned.

Dr. Gold leaves little doubt as to whether his theory is a supplement or a replacement.

This brings us to the merits of the theory on its own. The biggest hurdle is simple:

No one has found the bacteria which is the centerpiece of his theory.

This is not to say that bacteria with some of the necessary characteristics haven’t been found somewhere in the world. However, bacteria with ALL of the characteristics haven’t been found in ANY deposit (to my knowledge). We’ve pumped a lot of oil and gas out of the ground. It’s pretty reasonable to say that in order to fully accept his theory we would need to find that bacteria AND explain why it hasn’t been found previously. Furthermore, some of the other pieces of evidence he cites can be simply explained by other, established, mechanisms.

Looking over my earlier response I forgot to mention the following: “Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage” by Kenneth S. Deffeyes (ISBN: 0-691-11625-3) It’s a quick read and doesn’t require a technical background.

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