Slippery Myths

By Jerry D. Haight

History teaches his critics offered profound resistance to the voyage west to the East Indies.  Would it be a surprise that his critics were right? History, it is thought, vindicated Christopher Columbus against those who held the view of a flat earth.  But the fact is everyone knew the earth was a globe and the argument pertained to its size rather than shape.  Critics argued the distance was too great and, in fact, they were right, he could not possibly have survived the trip had an unknown continent not intervened before he and his crew had to pay for his mistake with their lives. The idea that people of the middle ages thought the earth was flat is an example of a myth propagated in the nineteenth century and can be laid at the feet of Washington Irving, who included it in his historical novel on Columbus, the wider idea that everyone in the Middle Ages was deluded. This myth has been widely accepted ever since.

At the turn of this century, it was also widely accepted that clocks and computers would fail by what was termed the 2000 bug and the world would be in chaos at midnight of the last day of the 20th century. The computer errors fostered by the event would have a devastating cascading effect with planes plunging to earth, strategic defenses failing and other widespread unspecified but tragic consequences probably forever altering Life as we knew it. Fortunately, that concern was unfounded and the world survived.

The author remembers when oil was discovered on the land owned by Sam Chambers in western Nebraska in 1950, Sam’s father, C. S. advised him to put the royalties in savings for his good fortune would play out within a few short years. Nearly sixty years later, Sam’s daughter, Roxanne, still receives royalties for those same wells and the estimated reserves are nearly forty times that originally determined in spite of more than a half century of production.

Since the industrial revolution increased the world’s dependence on oil for energy, over and over dire predictions held and still hold the human race imminently running out of available petroleum. These dire predictions have been utterly wrong and perpetuate yet another myth?

Most of these gloom and doom predictions depend on a fundamentally flawed premise dating back to the 18th century that petroleum somehow (miraculously) evolved from biological detritus, and is, accordingly, limited in abundance. Under this hypothesis, when then abundant pre-historic plant and animal life died, the remains formed humus which through heat and pressure turned into a tar-like substance. Then over perhaps millions of years, this substance became what is called crude oil. Under this myth, the conditions creating oil in the Middle East, the Gulf of Mexico, Nebraska and the Arctic Circle are the same, i.e. hot, humid climates with super-abundant plant and animal life. What is remarkable is that the term “fossil fuel”, arising out of this faulty hypothesis is still widely used and accepted.

The “fossil origin” hypothesis was replaced during the past forty years by the theory of abyssal, abiotic petroleum origins. This theory defines petroleum as a primordial material surfacing from great depths of the earth. In other words, it was formed concurrent with the creation of the world and exists at depths of 4000 to 6000 meters (13123 to 19685 feet) below sea level and is not related to biological processes at all. It is the consensus of many that literally oceans of petroleum exist at these depths and its availability is predicated upon technological development and exploratory competence. As facts emerge, it may turn out that the actual reserves are virtually limitless and, in fact may very well be replenishing.

Take for example production at an oil field, deep in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. It was supposed to have declined years ago, but according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, following its 1973 discovery, Eugene Island 330's output peaked at about 15,000 barrels a day by 1989. Then production slowed to about 4,000 barrels per day. Then suddenly -- some say almost inexplicably – the field operated by PennzEnergy Co., recovered and now produces over 13,000 barrels a day and probable reserves have rocketed to more than 400 million barrels from 60 million. Stranger still, scientists studying the field say the crude coming out of the pipe is of a geological age quite different from the oil that gushed 10 years ago. Eugene Island is rapidly refilling itself, perhaps from the continuous source miles below the Earth's surface. That, they say, points to the tantalizing possibility that oil may not be the limited resource formerly assumed.

Likewise, most geologists are hard-pressed to explain why the world's greatest oil pool, the Middle East, has more than doubled its reserves in the past 20 years, despite half a century of intense exploitation and relatively few new discoveries. It would take a pretty big pile of dead dinosaurs and prehistoric plants to account for the estimated 660 billion barrels of oil in the region, notes Norman Hyne, a professor at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma.

Doomsayers to the contrary, the world contains far more recoverable oil than was believed even 20 years ago. Between 1976 and 1996, estimated global oil reserves grew 72%, to 1.04 trillion barrels. Much of that growth came in the past 10 years, with the introduction of computers to the oil patch, which made drilling for oil more predictable.

"It kind of blew me away," says Jean Whelan, a geochemist and senior researcher from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Connected to Woods Hole since 1973, Dr. Whelan says she considered herself a traditional thinker until she encountered the phenomenon in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, she says, "I believe there are huge systems of oil just migrating" deep underground waiting for us to find it.

Are we really running out of oil . . . . or is that just a slippery myth?