Thursday, January 12, 2006

So where does oil come from?

Always fascinated by history, or what passes for it, we can't help ourselves but put into the public record today the observation that after 150 years of various researches into that substance called petroleum, or crude oil, apparently we still don't know how it came to be.

Fifty years ago we thought we knew. It was the residue of dinosaurs, and jurassic swamp vegetation. Thus an international oil company could adopt a logo with a green dinosaur and people in general gave them credit for good marketing. (In our view, the winged horse of Texaco seemed a bit faster, and thus a better marketing image, than the plodding brontosaurus, although no one was claiming that oil was the geologically prepared remains of Pegasus.)

A few years in between and the prevailing opinion was modified to suggest that the oil layer beneath the earth was tied to vegetation that had compacted and become trapped over many thousands of years. Still another theory, still largely held today, is that the oil/natural gas deposits under the earth were the result of massive algal deposits on early earth oceans. Whether you got tarry crude or smelly natural gas depended largely on how far beneath the surface the algal wastes were compacted.

But crude contrarians began to raise their objections, insisting that oil was the by-product of the earth's continual pressurized stirring and belching of the elements, as witnessed by the frequent undersea "oil leaks". This view is called "abiotic" for it maintains that biological processes are unnecessary in the creation of these so-called "fossil fuels."

The bad news for the abiotic crowd is that several drilling tests to prove the point came a cropper in places like Sweden, where no oil was thought to exist, and gee, no oil was found.

The good news recently for the abiotic crowd is the discovery of massive amounts of methane on Titan, a moon of Saturn, that seem to have come into being without the benefit of life processes of any sort, or even strong sunlight. Abiotic methane is just one small step away from abiotic crude oil, geologically speaking.

Does any of this really matter?

Yes. If the fossil fuel people are correct, then the world will soon (if not already) face a situation called Peak Oil, where future production of petroleum must necessarily decrease because the oil still left in the ground, or to be found, is more difficult to capture. A world that consumes ever more oil as populations grow and economies boom does not want to hear that oil is becoming less abundant. (Ol "Supply & Demand" has a lot to say about that situation.)

If the abiotic people are correct, then there does not necessarily have to be an energy cliff awaiting civilization.

The practical problem is that the abiotic people need to get it in gear, as petroleum statistics from around the globe point increasingly to Peak Oil. Even if the abiotic theory is the correct one, it needs to be shown that a) the newly produced oil can be found and harvested and b) that the earth is producing sufficient quantities to keep up with existing (and rising) demand.

We are fairly agnostic on the whole mess. There's still a couple of centuries of coal available, and we're still open-minded about nuclear power, properly engineered and competently operated. Alternative technologies abound with promise, but will never become practical until they are profitable. (In all of human history there has yet to be one successful example of a government legislating a pragmatic, new energy source into existence.)

We are confident that a free people, with free markets, can in a reasonable amount of time find the solutions to any energy problem.

Sadly, we are also certain that the United States no longer fits that description. Our energy industries are over-regulated and, worse, no longer are operated with the best interests of the American people in mind as the regulatory environment and tax laws have driven the bulk of energy companies into "multi-national" status.

Solutions? If bigger government got us into this mess, it's a cinch that more big government isn't going to get us out of it. Thus we either have to down-size our regulatory approach to Big Energy, or individually we are going to have to down-size our everyday need for energy, perhaps sooner rather than later. And not just downs-size. REALLY down-size!

Not a Honda Prius, which we couldn't afford anyway. More like an Apaloosa pony and a field of oats so he can keep up his strength all winter.

Not energy efficient washers and dryers. Banging your clothes against the rocks in the creek and hanging them out to dry on old-fashioned clothes lines.

Not banks of solar panels on the roof, but wood stoves belching soot and smoke into the neighborhood on a crisp winter's morning. Also on a warm summer's morning as bacon is frying.

Not a Green's dream, but a nightmare for Americans who live in the real world.

So all you smart fellas with the college degrees in petroleum engineering: figure it out.

Faster please!


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