Fossil Fuel: So, Just How Did Dinosaurs Get 5 Miles Underground?

With all the discussion of the oil well leak in the Gulf of Mexico, I think this is timely.

Deep water oil drilling. Via

But the real spectacle is below the surface: A drill is plunging down through 4,000 feet of ocean and more than 22,000 feet of shale and sediment — a syringe prodding Earth’s innermost veins. That 5-mile shaft will soon give Chevron the deepest active offshore well in the Gulf. Some land drills have gone deeper,

Everyone knows the traditional story of how oil is formed. You know,  the prehistoric matter, heat and pressure story.
One theory you don’t hear much of in the United States is the one that Thomas Gold put forth in 2001:

When asked what first prompted him to think that oil and natural gas are generated from hydrocarbons present at Earth’s formation, Gold replied, “The astronomers have been able to find that hydrocarbons, as oil, gas and coal are called, occur on many other planetary bodies. They are a common substance in the universe. You find [large quantities of hydrocarbons] in the kind of gas clouds that made systems like our solar system…Is it reasonable to think that our little Earth, one of the planets, contains oil and gas for reasons that are all its own and that these other bodies have it because it was built into them when they were born?” (7)

When the interviewer replied, “That question makes a lot of sense. After all, they didn’t have dinosaurs and ferns on Jupiter to produce oil and gas,” Gold said, “That’s right. Yet, for some reason my theory was not heard. The theory that it was all made from fossils ha[s] become so firmly established that when the astronomers had perfectly definitive evidence on most of the other planets, it was just ignored, especially by the petroleum geologists who had, by then, called these things, ‘fossil fuels.’ So once they had a name, then every body believed it.”(8-9)

Gold’s theory is that microorganisms are converting existing carbon in to oil:

In the abiogenic theory, by contrast, hydrocarbons form perpetually at greater depths from carbon that was present from Earth’s formation, and are then utilized by micro-organisms that convert the short-chain hydrocarbons into longer chains as they move through what Gold called the “deep hot biosphere.” Depending on formation rates, the abiogenic theory might allow for self-renewing petroleum reservoirs, all over the globe, taking petroleum out of the category of “fossil fuel.”

An article in Science today seems to suggest that the abiotic theory is correct. In a fairly dense article entitled “Abiogenic Hydrocarbon Production at Lost City Hydrothermal Field,” researchers Proskurowski et al., find evidence of the abiogenic formation of short-hydrocarbon chains in an area where hydrocarbons would not otherwise be able to form by the biogenic theory. What Proskurowski et al. identified was the formation of carbon chains 1 to 4 carbon atoms in length, with shorter chains forming deeper, and with isotopic signatures ruling out biogenic origins. The conclusion of the article is as follows: “Our findings illustrate that the abiotic synthesis of hydrocarbons in nature may occur in the presence of ultramafic rocks, water, and moderate amounts of heat.”

If this sound far fetched, keep in mind that oil seeps from the ocean floor naturally and there are organisms that literally ‘eat’ the seepage:

“It takes a special organism to live half a mile deep in the Earth and eat oil for a living,” said Valentine, an associate professor of earth science at UCSB. “There’s this incredibly complex diet for organisms down there eating the oil. It’s like a buffet.”

And, the researchers found, there may be one other byproduct being produced by all of this munching on oil – natural gas. “They’re eating the oil, and probably making natural gas out of it,” Valentine said. “It’s actually a whole consortium of organisms – some that are eating the oil and producing intermediate products, and then those intermediate products are converted by another group to natural gas.”

Reddy, a marine chemist at Woods Hole, said the research provides important new clues in the study of petroleum. “The biggest surprise was that microbes living without oxygen could eat so many compounds that compose crude oil,” Reddy said. “Prior to this study, only a handful of compounds were shown, mostly in laboratory studies, to be degraded anaerobically. This is a major leap forward in understanding petroleum geochemistry and microbiology.”

The next time you hear someone talking about “fossil fuels” ask your self  “how did dinosaurs (or if you want to be more accurate, prehistoric sea life) get five miles underground?”

  • theCL May 9, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    I’ve read quite a bit about the abiotic oil theory in the past. I’m not a scientist, but it makes at least as much sense as the fossil theory, if not more.

  • steve May 9, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    @theCL: The abiotic theory makes more sense to me.

    Just on an intuitive level, where would the sediment come from to create a 4 mile thick layer (after all the tremendous heat an pressure) to cover the Gulf of Mexico for example? Then cover ANWAR, Venezuela, Canada, Saudi Arabia. Its not like the Earth suddenly increased in diameter.

    And scientist have observed microbes that feed of the naturally occurring oil seepage today and create natural gas.

  • Benedict Neukon May 10, 2010 at 4:16 am

    It’s important keep in mind that there’s no “fossil fuel”.

    “The suggestion that petroleum might have arisen from some transformation of squashed fish or biological detritus is surely the silliest notion to have been entertained by substantial numbers of persons over an extended period of time.” — Sir Fred Hoyle, 1982

  • steve May 10, 2010 at 10:07 am

    @Benedict Neukon: Benedict, Thanks for the comment and I will have to look up Sir Fred Hoyle.

    Please stop by again!

  • Right-Wing Links (May 10, 2010) May 11, 2010 at 12:03 am

    […] Fossil Fuel: So, Just How Did Dinosaurs Get 5 Miles Underground? […]

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  • chuck December 7, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    Neat article! I don’t think even considering the biblical flood account would justify 5 mile deep oil oceans!


    • steve December 7, 2010 at 8:04 pm

      It is hard to imagine.

      Thanks for the comment and please stop by again.

      • miriam November 8, 2011 at 2:50 pm

        darn it all, I used to love seeing the looks on my students faces when they believed that oil came from dinosaurs. I will miss that experience.

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  • Kalabata K.S. May 7, 2012 at 8:24 am

    Gold’s theory makes much more sense to me. Does it mean for instance that all that oil was once living organisms? How much life must die, decay and decompose to generate all that oil now. And again, how is it possible to cover vast areas with all that miles deep sediment? Mmmmmmmmmh