by Trevor J. Major, M.Sc.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This month's article is intended to accompany a previous

report on coal (Major, 1990). Most of the introductory and closing

comments from that earlier piece are relevant to the current subject.

The two topics have been combined in a manuscript, along with some

additional information, which is available from our offices for $2.


Oil has no equivalent to the relatively straightforward "swamp

model" of coal formation. Indeed, scientists are still debating whether

oil has a biological or a non-biological origin. Most petroleum

geologists believe that oil is derived ultimately from living

organisms, and scientists are having some success in finding such a

connection (e.g., Moldowan, et al., 1990). Unfortunately, the

destructive effects of heat and chemical reactions deep in the Earth

make it difficult to confirm this theory. Distinguished astrophysicist

Thomas Gold is one man who thinks oil has a non-biological origin. He

suggests that oil and gas formed from methane in the early part of

Earth's history. However, his greatest hope---a 21,000 feet deep, $40

million hole in Sweden---has turned up dry (Kerr, 1990).

Part of the problem in explaining the origin of oil is its

diversity. Oil has been found in many different geological situations,

and its chemistry varies from place to place. Yet there is this one

common factor: oil is always found in or near sedimentary rocks of

marine origin (Brownlow, 1979). For this reason, it is usually thought

that oil comes from the remains of countless dead plants and animals

which collected on an ancient seafloor. This organic matter was then

buried under thousands of feet of sediment, and converted by heat and

chemical reactions into various kinds of hydrocarbons (compounds of

hydrogen and carbon)---collectively known as crude oil or petroleum.

With increasing burial and heat, the heavyweight parts were broken down

into methane and light hydrocarbons---collectively known as natural gas

(Tissot and Welte, 1978).

Two other steps are necessary to explain the huge oil fields found

in certain parts of the world. First, oil and gas must migrate out of

the original source rock into a reservoir rock which can hold the oil

in its pores and crevices. Second, there has to be some barrier, such

as an impervious rock, which will stop oil from leaking to the surface

and keep it under pressure. [The dribble of oil from Jed Clampett's

musket shot into a swamp may get him to the local lube bay, but not

Beverly Hills.] In their unending search for oil, exploration

geologists try to find special formations which would favor the

accumulation of oil. One such formation, called an anticline, is often

a good place to look because oil and gas can pool in the uppermost pa

rt of the arch-shaped fold.

Clearly, in the uniformitarian scheme of things, oil takes millions

of years to form. First, time is needed for sufficient quantities of

organic matter to collect in the sediments of the seafloor. Second,

time is needed to bury these sediments under a sufficient thickness of

rocks to produce the pressure, and thus the heat, needed for the

transformation of biological substances into petroleum. Third, time is

needed for this transformation to work. And fourth, time is needed for

oil and gas to migrate and collect in suitable reservoirs. The first

two stages, at least, are assumed to take place over a period of

several million years. Dating of source rocks by conventional

geological methods is supposed to reinforce the idea of an ancient

origin for most oil deposits.


Thus far, little work has been done by creationists to explain the

origin of oil and gas within a general interpretive framework (i.e., a

framework similar to the theory of coal formation proposed by Steven

Austin). However, various creation scientists have addressed certain

aspects of petroleum geology from the perspective of a young Earth and

a global Flood.

Inorganic Origin

Some scientists see the quantity of oil as a real problem for the

young-Earth model. In this regard, creationist Glenn R. Morton (1984)

argues that the total amount of carbon found in the world's petroleum

deposits is significantly greater than the amount of carbon contained

in all the plants and animals that lived before the Flood. In other

words, there is not enough organic matter to make all the world's known

oil reserves in a single, short-lived catastrophic Flood.

To overcome this perceived difficulty, Morton proposes an inorganic

origin for oil. Unfortunately, while his arguments are interesting, his

model is based on Thomas Gold's methane out-gassing idea. As we have

already seen, Gold's model is now suffering from a severe lack of

credibility. This is not to say that an inorganic origin, or an

inorganic means of enhancing oil production, should be eliminated out-

of-hand. Nonetheless, most of the evidence points toward a primarily

organic origin.

In a response directed specifically at Morton, John Woodmorappe

(1986) argues that existing quantities of oil can be explained in terms

of the Genesis Flood. While Morton estimates that there are

approximately 2 x 10 to the 20th power grams of petroleum carbon in the

Earth's crust, Woodmorappe shows that this is only one hundredth of the

estimated 2 x 10 to the 22nd power grams of organic carbon in the

sediments of the modern seafloor. He concludes: "If any combination of

the carbon in the antediluvian oceans and that mobilized during the

Flood totaled only 1% of the present oceanic amount, the high value [of

Morton] for global oil would be immediately satisfied" (1986, p 206).

In other words, there is no problem in finding enough organic matter in

the pre-Flood world to make huge quantities of oil.

Organic Origin

David McQueen (1986) shares with most creationists the belief that

oil was formed by the sudden burial of plants and animals in the

violent waters of the Flood. As noted earlier, direct evidence for this

biological origin is difficult to obtain. Most of the evidence rests on

the possibility that various organic substances can be transformed into

the sort of compounds found in crude oils. For example, chlorophyll

`a', which occurs in nearly all photosynthetic cells, is structurally

similar to porphyrin, a common ingredient of sedimentary rocks and

crude oil. For this reason, scientists conclude that porphyrin

represents a "chemical fossil" of chlorophyll `a'. Porphyrin is also

associated with heme (Russell, 1960, p 25), a component of hemoglobin

found in the red blood cells of all vertebrates and many invertebrates.

One feature of organic compounds is that they are quickly broken

down in aerobic (oxygen containing) conditions. This occurs

because:(a)they react with oxygen; and,(b)many organisms effective in

the decomposition of organic matter live aerobically. As a result,

geologists favor the sort of oxygen-poor conditions found in quiet

areas of the seafloor with little circulation to accumulate organic

remains (see, also, the introductory remarks on oil formation). The

premature decay of porphyrin can be avoided, therefore, if it builds up

slowly in an anaerobic (oxygen free) environment.

However, slow accumulation is not the only way to avoid the effects

of oxygen. If sediments can accumulate rapidly, then organic matter is

immediately taken away from the effects of oxygen. This alternative

approach is taken by creationist David McQueen. He suggests:

If a "high sedimentation rate" will preserve organic

material, a catastrophic sedimentation rate, such as we

envision for the worldwide Flood, would uproot, kill,

and bury organic material so rapidly as to cut the

porphyrins off from oxidizing agents which would destroy

them in the ocean water (1986, p iii).

As evidence for his argument, McQueen then points to the wide

distribution of porphyrins in sediments and crude oils, and experiments

which show that porphyrins can be produced from chlorophylls in a

matter of hours. This catastrophic alternative shows that chemistry of

oil does not have to be explained from a uniformitarian point of view.

Rapid Formation of Oil in Nature

Scientists have discovered what would be considered very young oil

forming in the Guaymas Basin (Didyk and Simoneit, 1989). This 6,500-

feet-deep trench in the Gulf of California is covered by a 1,500-feet-

thick blanket of olive green ooze [yes, that is the technical name for

these deposits] formed from the carcasses of billions of tiny plankton.

It appears that hot geothermal waters percolating through the ooze are

converting this organic material into oil and gas. Radiocarbon dating

shows that the oil is less than 5,000 years old, and may be only a few

years old.

The Guaymas discovery bears strongly on the Flood model for at

least two reasons. First, it shows that oil can form naturally in a

short period of time, rather than over millions of years.

Correspondingly, the Flood model proposes a short-lived, catastrophic

geological event within relatively recent history. Second, it may show

that superheated water can generate oil at a greater rate than the heat

provided by mere burial. Correspondingly, Flood geology often includes

the suggestion that the biblical "fountains of the deep" were

equivalent to volcanic and geothermal emissions. However, rapid burial

of organic matter and accumulation of sediments would still be required

(for the reasons discussed in the previous section).

This find should not be embraced uncritically. It is necessary to

establish that hot waters percolating through organic-rich sediments

provide a significant mechanism for the formation of the world's oil

reserves. Unfortunately, geothermal activity is usually associated with

igneous rocks (e.g., granites, basalts, etc.), yet these are rarely

found in close proximity to oil-bearing strata. As noted earlier, oil

has a consistent association with sedimentary rocks of marine origin,

which seems discouraging if such a mechanism is to be incorporated into

a Flood model. However, one suggestion might be to speculate that the

opening of the fountains of the deep was a general, widespread release

of the Earth's inner energy onto its surface, and was not always

confined to geysers, volcanoes, hot water springs, and other discrete

emissions. Despite some reservations, this writer agrees with Andrew

Snelling who concludes: "...this model for hydrothermal generation of

petroleum is more than a feasible process for the generation of today's

oil and gas deposits in the time-scale subsequent to Noah's Flood as

suggested by creation scientists" (1990, p 34).

Rapid Formation of Oil in the Laboratory

Various attempts have been made to produce oil under laboratory

conditions. This has been done to investigate the origin of oil, and to

explore the possibility of making synthetic oil when current reserves

are depleted.

Many experiments have produced petroleum compounds, crude oil, and

oil-like substances in relatively short periods of time. This would, at

first, seem to provide good evidence for the rapid production of oil.

However, there is always a question concerning the difference between

experimental conditions, and the "true" geological setting and time

required to generate oil. In other words, how can a few pounds of

organic matter, subjected to heat and pressure in a sealed capsule for

a few hundred days, match the conditions expected in nature?

Researchers Saxby and Riley (1984) tried to circumvent this problem

by conducting their experiments over a period of six years. They placed

oil shales and brown coals, both of which are source rocks associated

with the production of oil and gas in nature, into two sets of six

stainless steel "pressure cookers." Beginning at 100øC, they raised the

temperature by one degree per week over a period of 50, 100, 150, 200,

250, and 300 weeks, analyzing the contents of the ovens at 150øC,

200øC, 250øC, 300øC, 350øC, and 400øC, respectively. This was meant to

simulate the burial of source rocks under hundreds of feet of sediment

per week. After 200 weeks, that is, in less than four years, the shale

produced a substance "indistinguishable from a paraffinic crude oil,"

while the brown coal produced a "wet natural gas." Coincidentally (or

maybe not), the peak level of hydrocarbon production occurred at

350øC---the same temperature as the hydrothermal-vent fluids in

the Guaymas Basin.

These experiments seem to confirm the origins of crude oil and

natural gas "by showing that slow chemical processes, under the right

conditions, can generate hydrocarbons like those found naturally"

(`Science News', 1984). However, a uniformitarian view is only

confirmed given the assumption that a rise of one degree is equivalent

to the deposition of sediments over hundreds of thousands of

years. If it is assumed that a thick sequence of sediments could

accumulate in a matter of months, as the Flood model proposes, then the

experiment would still work. Indeed, the virtual lack of dependency on

"geological time" is confirmed by those involved in the project:

In many geological situations much longer time intervals

are available but evidently the molecular mechanism of

the decomposition is little changed by the additional

time. Thus, within sedimentary basins, heating times of

several years are sufficient for the generation of oil and

gas from suitable precursors (Saxby, et al. 1986, p 80).

That these experiments begin at temperatures suggestive of deep

burial prompts further comparison with the Flood model, in that a

significant amount of earth materials were probably eroded and

deposited within the first few weeks of the Flood. At this stage, the

remains of plants and animals carried in the turbulent waters were

deposited with thousands of feet of sand and mud. Then, as the oceans

calmed and the land drained, sediments suspended in the oceans

gradually sank to the seafloor, further subjecting the organic matter

to heat-driven chemical reactions. In favorable geological conditions,

the hydrocarbons could collect in commercial quantities.


While much detail needs to be added to the creationist model of oil

and gas formation, an initial study of the problem finds much hope for

a reasonable solution. Observations in both nature and the laboratory

suggest that oil can be formed fairly rapidly, and does not have to be

millions of years old. Further studies are needed to relate unique

deposits (i.e., those in the Guaymas Basin) and experimental procedures

to hydrocarbon deposits throughout the world, with special attention to

their geological contexts.


Brownlow, A.H. (1979), `Geochemistry' (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-


Didyk, B.M. and B.R.T. Simoneit (1989), "Hydrothermal Oil of Guaymas

Basin and Implications for Petroleum Formation Mechanisms,"

`Nature', 342:65-69.

Kerr, Richard A. (1990), "When a Radical Experiment Goes Bust,"

`Science', 247:1177-1179.

McQueen, R. David (1986), "The Chemistry of Oil Explained by Flood

Geology," `Impact', No. 155.

Major, Trevor J. (1990), "Genesis, and the Origin of Coal," `Reason &

Revelation', 10:21-24.

Moldowan, J. Michael, et al. (1990), "Sedimentary 24-`n'-

Propylcholestanes, Molecular Fossils Diagnostic of Marine Algae,"

`Science', 247:309-312.

Morton, Glenn R. (1984), "The Carbon Problem," `Creation Research

Society Quarterly', 20:212-219.

Nevins, Stuart E. (1976), "The Origin of Coal," `Impact', No. 41.

Russell, W.L. (1960), `Principles of Petroleum Geology', Second Edition

(New York: McGraw-Hill)

Saxby, J.D. and K.W. Riley (1984), "Petroleum Generation by Laboratory-

Scaled Pyrolysis Over Six Years Simulating Conditions in a Subsiding

Basin," `Nature', 308:177-179.

Saxby, J.D., et al. (1986), "Petroleum Generation: Simulation Over Six

Years of Hydrocarbon Formation From Torbanite and Brown Coal in a

Subsiding Basin," `Organic Geochemistry', 9[2]:69-81.

`Science News' (1984), "Striking Oil in the Laboratory," 125:187.

Snelling, Andrew and John Mackay (1984), "Coal, Volcanism, and Noah's

Flood," `Ex Nihilo Technical Journal', 1:11-29.

Snelling, Andrew A. (1990), "How Fast Can Oil Form?" `Creation Ex

Nihilo', 12[2]:30-34.

Tissot, B.P. and D.H. Welte (1978), `Petroleum Formation and

Occurrence' (Berlin: Springer-Verlag).

Woodmorappe, John (1986), "The Antediluvian Biosphere and its

Capability of Supplying the Entire Fossil Record," `Proceedings of

the First International Conference on Creationism', August 4-9,

1986, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh, PA: Creation Science

Fellowship), 2:205-213.

Note: While Flood geologists have no problem with the rapid

accumulation of sediments represented by an increase of 1øC per week,

evolutionary geologists would expand this week like an accordion.

Interested readers might like to know the time frame needed to achieve

this temperature increase in the uniformitarian model.(1)Given a steep

temperature/depth gradient of 1øC/100 feet (based on measurements in

deep wells), and a "high" sedimentation rate of 12.2 cm/100 years (in

Recent and Pleistocene sediments of the Gulf Coast area), it would take

about 100 feet every 25,000 years to increase the temperature of the

buried sediments by one degree.(2)Given a shallow gradient of

0.44øC/100 feet, and a slow burial rate of 0.25cm/100 years (inferred

from certain Mesozoic sediments), it would take about 100 feet every

1.2 million years to produce an increase of one degree. Hence, in this

old-Earth model, the 200 week duration of the experiment really

represents 5 million to 240 million years.

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Index - Evolution or Creation

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