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Weekly Column - 05.08.2006

DEBUNKING PEAK OIL
by J. R. Nyquist

According to the late Professor Thomas Gold, “Whenever … conflicting new evidence is brushed aside and not reported because it does not fit, then that particular science is in deep trouble – and that has happened quite often in the historical past.” Men cling to theories, and they frequently reject evidence that contradicts their theories. With the high price of gasoline, and rampant talk of “oil scarcity,” it is worthwhile to consider the ideas of Professor Thomas Gold.

Last January this column discussed the pessimistic thesis of James Kunstler’s book, The Long Emergency. According to Kunstler, peak oil is upon us. We are headed for a crisis. The cheap energy joyride is over and economic catastrophe is near at hand. But the late Professor Thomas Gold takes a different approach, questioning the idea that oil is a “fossil fuel” in limited supply. And Professor Gold is not just anyone. He is one of the scientists who first postulated that pulsars were rapidly rotating neutron stars (later confirmed).

According to Professor Gold, oil is produced by an abiogenic process, deep within the earth. The scientific community has not been eager to affirm this thesis. In fact, they tend to resist it. As Professor Gold noted, men are unwilling to learn new things. “Too many people think that what they learned in college … is all that there is to be learned in the subject….” And so they close their minds and turn away from new facts, new discoveries and new insights. Professor Gold thought that scientists were stifling new ideas because of a growing and irrational attachment to old ideas. Men are tribal, he noted. They are driven by a herd instinct. “If a large proportion of the scientific community in one field is guided by the herd instinct, then they cannot adopt another viewpoint since they cannot imagine that the whole herd will swing around at the same time.” And then there is a financial incentive as well. According to Gold, “if financial consequences are at stake, then on the whole staying with the herd is the successful policy for the individual who is depending on these [revenues]….”

It should also be kept in mind that those who stay with the herd are protected from criticism. “The sheep in the interior of the herd,” said Professor Gold, “are well protected from the bite in the ankle by the sheep dog.” According to Gold, discoveries can be stopped dead by the scientific community itself. Like all mammalian communities, the scientific community is herd-like – though it harbors scientific pretensions. Its members desire to maintain funding and avoid criticism. And so, for reasons peculiar to the herd animal, the scientific community can oppose scientific discovery.

In 1992 Gold published a paper titled “The Deep Hot Biosphere.” In this paper he suggested that oil is non-biologically produced, deep within the earth. In other words, oil is not a fossil fuel. To test his theory, Professor Gold asked for funding from the Department of Energy. Most of the referees gave the proposal high marks. One reported, “This proposal must be funded. In science every research project is a risk, but here the risk is negligible because even if the hypothesis is not correct, this research proposal will contribute strongly to fundamental science in petroleum engineering…. If the hypothesis is correct, the Department of Energy will have hit the jackpot beyond its wildest imagination.” Another referee gave the proposal top marks, but said it was “misguided” and shouldn’t be funded. And so the proposal wasn’t funded. “It wasn’t the only such [proposal] that I have submitted over the years now,” wrote Professor Gold, “and they have all been turned down both at NSF and DOE. It is absolutely hopeless to get any money in contravention of the opinions that are so firmly established in the petroleum business.”

Professor Gold observed, “in petroleum related matters there are huge numbers of people involved at every step.” Where numbers are involved, mediocrity prevails. To illustrate his point, Gold asks us to imagine a petroleum geologist working for Exxon, guiding projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars, admitting to his employer that he could have found 10 times as much petroleum using another method. Such an admission is unlikely to occur, said Professor Gold. “A very small proportion of people would have the stature that they would turn around and say, ‘All my life I have taught or struggled with these problems on the wrong lines, and now I understand the right thing.’”

Touching on Professor Gold’s work, Jerome Corsi and Craig Smith have written a book titled Black Gold Stranglehold: The Myth of Scarcity and the Politics of Oil. While Corsi and Smith do not deal with the nuances of Gold’s abiogenic hypothesis of petroleum’s origin, they nonetheless appreciate the environmental left’s politics of scarcity and its potentially disruptive effects. The authors touch on the fact that Russia/Ukraine originated their own version of the abiogenic hypothesis of petroleum’s origin, and thereby successfully expanded Ukrainian oil production by drilling where no oil should’ve been found. The Dnieper-Donetsk Basin of Eastern Ukraine was thought to have no oil in the 1950s. Geologists said that the area had no “source rock,” therefore, no basis for fossil fuel creation. According to Corsi and Smith, “In the early 1990s the Dnieper-Donetsk Basin was reexplored according to the principles of the abiotic theory, looking for oil and gas at great depths within the earth.” In an apparent confirmation of Professor Gold’s hypothesis, 37 commercially productive wells were drilled in the Dnieper-Donetsk Basin. The oil was analyzed and found to originate deep within the earth, contrary to the accepted fossil fuel theory.

Besides finds like the one in Ukraine, there are other reasons we should distrust the fossil fuel theory. In 1989 Professor Gold wrote, “The fact that we find that oil and gas exist on other planetary bodies, obviously not due to biology, is completely ignored.” But those curious herd animals, the geologists, aren’t interested in other planets. “The moment you dare to look at the foundation,” he wrote, “you are a scoundrel. I have made people absolutely wild, shaking their fists at me, when I proposed in my talks that there was some uncertainty about the origin of petroleum. One fellow actually wrote a paper that got published, that there must be life on Jupiter because hydrocarbons have been seen on Jupiter.”

In Oliver Morton’s article titled Fuel’s Paradise, Professor Gold is encouraged to explain his theory. “The whole story of the deep hot biosphere is that oil coming up from below, without biology, will be food material for microbiology when it gets to a relatively shallow level where the temperature is not too high.” Therefore, a misunderstanding occurs as to the role played by microorganisms in the creation of oil. Gold said he had challenged American petroleum geologist King Hubbert (of Hubbert’s peak fame) regarding the size of oil-producing regions. How could Hubbert account for the fact that from Turkey to Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Persian Gulf you have completely different geological sediments? “There’s no sedimentary material that is uniform throughout the region,” noted Professor Gold. Hubbert’s response was incurious: “In geology,” replied Hubbert, “we don’t try to explain things – we just report what we see.”

Of course, in 1956 Hubbert predicted that oil production would peak in the 1970s. “Hubbert’s views changed the wealth of nations,” argued Professor Gold. “The belief that oil would run out … caused the early- ‘70s oil crisis. That, to my mind, is a completely stupid attitude that shifted many billions of dollars away from some countries and toward others.”

Of course, I have to question Professor Gold’s statement. The oil crisis of the early 1970s occurred because certain oil-producing nations decided to punish the United States for supporting Israel. It may also be said that today’s oil shortages are due to politically motivated disruptions. As with starvation in the Third World, conflict and political mismanagement seem to be the efficient causes at work. Admittedly, on some level, scarcity is always lurking in the background; but as things have stood for the last century, conflict and political games are the real guarantors of tragedy.

© 2006 Jeffrey R. Nyquist
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