Most people are taught that petroleum is formed deep under the Earth over the course of millions of years and is derived from the remains of plankton, plants, and other biological organisms. This explanation is stated matter-of-factly on certain government and educational websites.

This theory for oil formation is, however, just that—a theory. There is an opposing view that has substantial evidence to back it up.

Credence for oil’s organic origin (biotic origin) is strong in the United States, while the idea of an inorganic origin (abiotic origin) has long been accepted among post-Soviet scientists. Some American scientists have also jumped on the abiotic train, scorned though it may be by most of their peers.

They point to problems posed by the idea that oil comes from dead plants.

Where Did All That Dead Stuff Come From?

When a plant or animal dies, very little of its matter is buried. Nature recycles—some of nature’s greatest recyclers are insects, microorganisms, fungi, and bacteria. Has enough organic matter really been buried below the Earth to create trillions of barrels of oil?

Moreover, the biotic theory holds that organic matter must fit within the “oil window” before becoming oil. The oil window refers to a set of conditions, including reaching a particular depth (1 to 2.5 miles) where the temperature is right (140 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit) for oil to be produced.

Proponents of the alternative, abiotic theory, say oil may instead be a primordial substance that rises up from the Earth’s depths through fissures. Thus, oil might originate independently of organic sources undergoing chemical processes, similar to how methane is found on asteroids or in other barren environments.

Skeptics say methane is a simpler substance than petroleum; the process of forming the hydrocarbons in petroleum is more complex and the same logic might not hold.

Striking Oil Based On Abiotic Theory

Siljan Ring: Thomas Gold of New York’s Cornell University, who died in 2004, was a vocal proponent of abiotic theory. He advised a team that drilled in central Sweden in the late 1980s and early 1990s at a site known as the Siljan Ring that would have been seen as unpromising, to say the least, by surveyors working from a biotic perspective.

Conventional oil exploration confines itself to sedimentary basins. It is believed that plankton sinks to the bottom of bodies of water when it dies and is buried in sediment, which gets forced down over time until reaching the right conditions: the oil window.

The Siljan Ring, on the other hand, is not sediment-rich. What sediments are there, Gold said, are no deeper than 1,000 feet (300 meters), while the drilling was done at a depth of 3 to 7 miles (5 to 7 kilometers).

Albeit the drilling did not find the “gas field of world class dimensions” Gold predicted; it struck 80 barrels of oil, enough for Gold to feel vindicated and make some scientists reconsider his views. Of course, conventional drilling also doesn’t always strike it rich when surveyors think an area looks promising.

Yet, critics posited that oil seeped down there from sedimentary rock, to which Gold rebutted: “Oil seepage generated after 360 million years from such a small quantity of sediments seemed improbable.”

Oil Fields in Ukraine: A strong proponent of abiotic theory, Professor Vladilen A. Krayushkin, Chairman of the Department of Petroleum Exploration at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, is quoted in a 1996 paper by Dr. J. F. Kenney, titled “Special Edition on The Future of Petroleum.”

Krayushkin said: “The eleven major and one giant oil and gas fields here described have been discovered in a region which had, forty years ago, been condemned as possessing no potential for petroleum production. The exploration for these fields was conducted entirely according to the perspective of the modern Russian-Ukrainian theory of abyssal, abiotic petroleum origins.

“The drilling which resulted in these discoveries was extended purposely deep into the crystalline basement rock. … These reserves amount to at least 8,200M metric tons [more than 57 billion barrels] of recoverable oil and 100B cubic meters [328 billion cubic feet] of recoverable gas, and are thereby comparable to those of the North Slope of Alaska.”

Eugene Island: On Eugene Island, Louisiana, in 1995, it was reported that the oil fields were—perplexingly—refilling themselves after being depleted. The findings of Dr. Jean K. Whelan, part of a U.S. Department of Energy exploration program, seem to support the abiotic theory to explain this. She found that the oil likely came from great depths, as abiotic proponents say.

New York Times article from that time explained: “[Whelan] has found evidence of differences in the composition of oil over periods of time as it flows from greater to shallower depths. By gauging degradative chemical changes in the oil resulting from action by oil-eating bacteria, she infers that oil is moving in quite rapid spurts from great depths to reservoirs closer to the surface.”

Whelan also supported a theory of Gold’s that microbes eat oil, thus explaining the presence of biological material found in oil at great depths.


Whelan, like Gold, met with criticism. One of the major arguments against abiotic theory is that oil migrates with underground water, thus explaining oil found in unexpected places absent of sedimentary rock. Thus, the weird uniformity of oil found in different types of rock formations of different ages is the result of oil migrating to other places.

Petroleum engineer and consultant Jean H. Laherrère wrote a detailed, point-by-point rebuttal of Gold’s arguments. Gold had already died by this point, and was unable to respond. Laherrère said Gold was surely aware of this information.

Laherrère offers alternative explanations rather than direct disproofs. He sometimes seems to take Gold’s comments out of context or treat them as standalone arguments for abiotic theory. The paper does, however, consider both sides of the argument with many of Laherrère’s responses boiling down to the fact of oil migration explaining away the abiotic proposition.

The presence of certain metals and helium found in petroleum, too, are explained from both sides.

Since oil takes millions of years to form, and no one has witnessed it firsthand, whatever evidence is submitted on either side is difficult to qualify. If the abiotic theory is correct, though, it could have vast ramifications for the energy industry. If oil production were calibrated accordingly, “fossil fuel” could come to be regarded as a renewable energy source.

Gold a “Heretic?”

In a Cornell article written after Gold’s passing, Gold is quoted saying, “I don’t enjoy my role as heretic. … It’s annoying.”

The article goes on: “Indeed, despite the intense opposition they often encountered, many of Gold’s most outrageous—and passionately held—ideas had a curious habit of turning out to be right.”

Some of his theories—such as regarding the human ear’s mechanisms for hearing, the nature of pulsars in space, and the existence of fine rock powder on the moon—were scoffed at for decades before being vindicated and becoming widely accepted.

Gold has been compared to famed astronomer Carl Sagan, whom Gold was responsible for bringing to Cornell in 1968, after Sagan was denied tenure by Harvard. The Cornell article quotes Keay Davidson’s words from a 1999 biography of Sagan: “Gold epitomized Cornell’s openness to offbeat geniuses.”



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  1. Col. Fletcher Prouty offers his insight in the fossil fuel fairy tale.
    Oil drilled from the deep isn't fossil at all, and the dramatic statement that there's an end to fossil fuel is one of a huge pack of lies, designed to keep humanity on its toes, in fear of losing security, the comforts of life… in this case that's. . driving cars.. auto-mobiles, and the petrodollar.


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