Is the crude oil that we drill for, extract and convert into fuel the end product of thousands of millenia of decaying organic matter or is it formed through a different, independent geologic activity? Did, in fact, oil form 'abiotically' from the reaction of carbonates with iron oxide and water in the region called "mantle," deep in the Earth? The late astronomer and Professor Emeritus of physics, Thomas Gold of Cornell University argued in a 1993 paper that it did and explained it all in a book that can be read in its entirety free online here, The Deep Hot Biosphere. Apparently, Gold was only one of the leading proponents of the abiotic oil theory in the West. The theory may actually have had its origin in the work of a group of Ukrainian and Russian scientists. What has all this got to do with atheism?

I was recently reading a joke article about Sarah Palin, "Palintology to study dino bones put there by God 6,000 years ago" that mocked her belief in the age of the universe. Could she explain how crude oil, which we all know unequivocally (or do we?) takes hundreds of millenia to form through decay of pre-historic animal and plant matter, possibly have come about in the mere 6-odd millenia that Judeo-Christians popularly believe is the age of the universe? There are many contradictions to the notion of a 6-thousand-year-old universe. I don't really want to open this can of worms nor divert the discussion to the age of the universe but will quickly ponder two ideas as they have a bearing on the formation of oil. First, right here on earth, we estimate the age of ancient things through carbon14 (potassium-40, uranium-238, thorium-232, etc) dating to be in the order of millions of years of age. Some religions question the authenticity of these methods of dating things and there's an interesting discourse by an organization advocating religious tolerance here. Second and more glaringly, we have the fact of the constancy of the speed of light and a huge collection of celestial bodies further than 6,000 light-years from us. The logic is that if we can see things 6,000 light-years away from us, then light from that object travelled 6,000 years to get here. If there are objects further than 6,000 light years away that we can see, they, hence the universe, have to be older than 6,000 years. Even though time is not constant at the speed of light, nobody with even a rudimentary understanding of physics suddenly has the suspicion that the universe is actually much smaller than we estimate it to be. The known universe is certainly not a sphere 6,000 light-years in diameter with our little solar system at its centre...like Toronto. If it were that small, we would all be sizzling from the effects of Alpha Centauri, a mere 4.37 light years away and we're not talking about the relatively balmy effects of global warming either. A 2004 measure is that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, give or take a few generations, and 156 bil.... Earth itself is older than 4.3 billion years.

So, what does all this have to do with crude oil and what does crude oil have to do with anything? One of the reasons atheists scoff at the biblical implication that the earth is 4,000 - 6,000 years old is that we know that oil exists and take for granted that it would have taken much longer than 6,000 years to form through decaying plant and animal matter. Hence the earth is older than 6,000 years. Hence, we rubbish the idea that the bible is influenced by an infallible God. Ergo: No God! In the world of miraculous creation, however, anything is possible: crude oil could not have formed through decay because that would have taken too long and we know that the earth is no older than 6,000 years. Conveniently, then, we say that oil was either always there from creation just waiting for us to tap into it or formed much more quickly. But what is the implication for atheism if crude oil, like volcanic lava, indeed just happened to be there, formed abiotically through yet-to-be-understood geologic phenomena, either very quickly or over millions of years? What are the implications for atheism if the argument that crude was formed through decay is debunked? Does it lend default credibility to the religious claim of a 6,000-year-old earth? Not at all. The disproof of one theory is not proof of another and the absence of evidence is simply that, unknown until discovered.

A former chemical engineering student, I am embarrassed that I had never bothered to ask how crude oil comes to be formed pre-occupying myself, instead, with how to treat it for use in machinery after it was brought to the surface. I imagine that I am not alone, even amongst engineering students. Nor, for that matter, had I ever consciously accepted that it was through decay. After reading this comic jab at Palin, I started a little digging, no pun intended.

Ugo Bardi, a chemistry professor at the University of Florence in a 2004 paper asks, "Abiotic Oil: Science or Politics?" and concludes:

* If Gold's arguments are correct the surface of the earth through seepage would be awash in oil or;
* Getting to know the truth is irrelevant as it would be too expensive to dig to the depths necessary to prove the abiotic formation of oil.

Although he appears to lean against it, he doesn't go so far as to disprove the abiotic theory of the formation of oil.

Did you know that Titan, one of Saturn's moons has oil? Well, maybe not oil but certainly liquid hydrocarbons? Check out this article: "Titan’s Organic Hydrocarbons Dwarf Earth’s Oil Reserves". I think it's safe to say that these hydrocarbons are not the result of decaying plant and animal matter. I'll share one more link about abiotic oil and that should set the cat amongst the pigeons; check out what Free Engergy News has to say.

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To feed, or not to feed...
The Geological record also indicates that the earth is far older than 6000 years.

Look up the term "Varves".
Excellent, thanks. I found this interesting article, "Varves: Layered Sediments as

Evidence for an Old Earth.
"
No problem. The YECers jump through hoops and grasp at straws to prove their claims and just keep failing. There is evidence throughout many, many different fields of science which refute their claims, not just one.
lol, did you just suggest Toronto is the centre of the universe?


"The known universe is certainly not a sphere 6,000 light-years in diameter with our little solar system at its centre...like Toronto."
Yes, I did. It is not widely known that Toronto is the centre--as opposed to 'center', which this spellcheck prefers--of the known universe and very difficult for us Vancouverites to accept (hehe, thanks for catching that moment of levity in otherwise dry and boring subject matter).
I'm just waiting for the Creation Science Department of one of our many Christian Colleges or Universities to figure out how to "create" more oil so we can ejoy the quality of life our parents and grandparents enjoyed. Maybe they just aren't praying hard enough?
There's a danger to confusing agendas that may obstruct scientific discovery. There's the left vs. right agenda, the atheist vs. religious one and the green vs. economic one, to name a few. Each inevitably accuses the other of academic dishonesty by biasing it's research conclusions in favour of its respective sponsors. Is is possible to have an atheist with a conservative economic outlook? Can there be a tree-hugging bible-belt priest? How about a philanthropic capitalist? However ulikely, all of them are highly conceivable and indeed, known to exist.

It's easy to dismiss the idea of an unlimited supply of oil because such a thing plays right into the christian right wing's desire to drill into eco-sensitive areas. Whether or not there is an unlimited supply of oil (air/water/sand/uranium/whatever) doesn't have religious relevance. If abiotic oil is a geologic reality as Thomas Gold of secular Cornell U. suggests, then it doesn't matter where the proof thereof originates, even if it is at a religious institution. Surely it would be inappropriate to dismiss Mendel's contribution to genetics because his work was done in the garden of a monastry. If a christian college proves abiotic oil or discovers the cure for cancer, good for them and good for us. If it attributes those discoveries to some sort of divine intervention, then that's a different, subjective and even laughable conclusion.

The discovery of an abundant, perhaps unlimited supply of oil would mean a drastic drop in it's price. It would translate into a cheap source of energy that we already know how to harness and have ample infrastructure to. Would this give us licence to burn it with abandon in order to improve the quality of our lives to match those of our predecessors? Of course not! Just as air-polluting oil-powered de-salination plants result in life-giving salt-free water, every positive use of a natural resources comes with a trade-off against its environmental impact.
I think his very sarcastic remark and implication is referring to your tone. It's a tone we've come to expect from creationist trolls on this site.
You ask excessive amounts of rhetorical questions. Many of those have the feel of setting up a straw man. For instance you ask (rhetorically) about how atheism would be affected by proof of abiotic oil.
You also have a massive natural history fail: volcanic lava flows don't just "happen to be there" as you seem to envision abiotic oils. Volcanic lava flows are the consequence of exactly the same processes as oil, although different branches of it.
You cite a book on Topic A, by a professor in Topic B. Note how Topic A and Topic B are unrelated. Notice also how you cite a book - anyone can publish a book on any topic they like, and often do. Peer reviewed science journals are the current "gold standard" of whether a scientific idea has any merit.
You also make the classic mistake of assuming no-one will read the links you post. "Abiotic Oil: Science or Politics" quite clearly comes down on the side of Gold being "false - or at best irrelevant". That is not remotely what you imply with your "leans against".
As for the hydrocarbons on Titan - methane and ethane are hardly in the same league as the pentanes and octanes (commonly found in crude oil) in terms of complexity of required chemical processes - and as a "chemical engineering student" you should know that. Heck I do, and I'm evolutionary biology student.
To feed or not to feed indeed...

Suffice it to say that I came to the conclusion that there couldn't be a god a little over two decades ago when I was about your age. For someone who's been pondering and championing the secular cause for almost as long as you've been alive, it's almost a jolt to have an intimation that I'm an apologist for anything religious. Those who know my stance would be very amused at your suggestion. In any event, let me not use your age and inexperience against you. I don't need to defend my position to anyone and won't dignify your intimation with further discussion of it.

I didn't detect the sarcasm of the response to which you refer as referring to my tone. Did someone die and you become the non-elected interpreter of writing style? There's nothing in what I wrote that even vaguely implies creationism.

I chose to write this in the scientific thread to open a scientific discussion. Nowhere do I pretend to be an expert on this topic and welcome constructive criticism from people learned in the field or geology.

The links I suggested were not included frivolously. I ought to have mentioned Gold's 1992 paper, The Deep Hot Biosphere that was published in no less than The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For those of us who actually do read journals, it won't come as a surprise that the PNAS is the very respected official journal of the United States National Academy of Sciences. You have to be worth your weight in, well, gold, to get published there. Look, Thomas Gold was no hack scientist who hid his ideas in easily-published books because he was afraid of criticism. Far be it for me to summarily dismiss his ideas just because I have a rudimentary understanding of hydrocarbons.

On that note, thanks for pointing out the difference in the complexity of hydrocarbons to me. I knew I should have paid more attention in those advanced Organic Chemistry classes. There's no incongruence in the discovery of elementary hydrocarbons on a far-flung celestial body that is inhospitable to life, and their subsequent transformation into more complex chemicals. For those who subscribe to the hydrogen-to-hydra idea, methane to even nonanes does not require a leap of faith. If nothing else, it enforces the idea that organic matter forms without divine intervention.
Thank you for your reply.

I don't use PNAS in very much of my masters research - it doesn't cover the evolutionary biology stuff as well as TREE or some of the others. But I wouldn't expect it to - journal get specific for a reason :D. I'm very much aware of it.

If I misinterpreted Zarathustra's tone, then I apologise to him. Tone is really really hard online, and that one came across as clearly sarcastic to me.

Excessive amounts of rhetoric make scientific discussions on scientific topics difficult. They disguise you point. For example, there is no link between atheism and oil - why did you bring it up? Regardless of which side you are on, it's straw-man tactics, it's irrelevant to an actual scientific discussion, it is a creationist tactic, and it lowers the tone of your peice from a real scientific discussion to philosophising.

My point about Titan is not that the methan and ethane theres can't be processed into more complex chains, my point is that in the absence of life (as we know understand it at least) it hasn't. My point was that abiotic production of methane and ethane on a foreign body has no relationship to the production of horrifically more complex molecules in biotic systems on Earth.


I apologise for making assumptions about you based on your writing.
However my criticisms of your writing stand; it reads like creationist nonsense.
I disagree, I don't think this topic sounds anything like creationist non-sense, though it could have done without the mention of creationism and atheism. I felt confused by that, too. But I'm glad someone took the time to talk about an alternative scientific theory. Even if the theory isn't correct, it's enlightening to hear about different ideas.

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