GENESIS, AND THE ORIGIN OF OIL
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.
ORIGIN OF OIL AND NATURAL GAS
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.
ALTERNATIVES TO THE UNIFORMITARIAN MODEL
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.
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
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.
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
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
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,"
Kerr, Richard A. (1990), "When a Radical Experiment Goes Bust,"
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 &
Moldowan, J. Michael, et al. (1990), "Sedimentary 24-`n'-
Propylcholestanes, Molecular Fossils Diagnostic of Marine Algae,"
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', 9:69-81.
`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
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
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.
230 Landmark Drive
Montgomery, AL 36117-2752
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