Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Age of Oil: Just Beginning? Soon to End? Or Both?

Petroleum is thought to have originated mainly from the remains of sediments of photosynthetic organisms which sedimented from ancient seas, and were heated and compressed by geological processes. Assuming that to be true, it is interesting to note that photosynthetic organisms originated almost 3.5 billion years ago. From the chart above, one can note that the Oxygen concentration of Earth's atmosphere rose markedly at about the same time as the origin of cyanobacteria (2.8 gya), eukaryotes (2 gya), and algae (1 gya), respectively.

The higher the oxygen level the higher the rate of sedimentation of photosynthetic organisms, presumably. Note that such sedimentation began to occur nearly 3 gya. Also note that the vast majority of petroleum which humans have begun to tap into, originated roughly 100 mya or more recently. I think you will agree with me that the Proterozoic Era (2.5 gya to about 540 gya) is likely to have been extremely prolific in the sense of laying down organic carbon in sediments.
Now, observe the Tethys Sea in the image (see Tethys Ocean). The Tethys Sea (Ocean) opened about 250 mya and closed about 10 mya. Most of the modern world's known oil and gas reserves lie in the sediments which once underlay the Tethys water masses. Much of this oil and gas is of fairly recent origin, geologically speaking, although some dates back to the early Triassic (250 to 200 mya). It only takes a hundred thousand years or so to make petroleum by natural means, depending upon local geology.

Now, I know you are saying to your computers, "But Al, if we are only beginning to tap a very small fraction of all the oil that has been deposited, where is all the rest of the oil?"

To which I reply, "Where do you think it is? Floating beyond the orbit of Pluto?" No, seriously, a lot of things can happen to oil deposits over time. Some can seep into oceans and be eaten by microbes. Some can be turned into various types of gas, and escape or be adsorbed by minerals. But most of it is likely to have been buried in the constant geologic upheaval of the planet's layers of rock.

The Japanese and Chinese have recently begun finding significant deposits of oil and gas within volcanic rock. Oil geologists are beginning to look beneath undersea volcanic deposits for submerged oil fields of great potential. The Russians have been finding significant petroleum beneath deep igneous and metamorphic layers for many years. The history of oil formation goes back over ten times farther than almost all of the oil humans have retrieved or located so far -- although drops of bitumen has been found in rocks dated between 2.6 and 3.2 gya.
Australian expert in petroleum geology, Associate Professor Colin Ward of the University of New South Wales, says it's not surprising that algae and other simple life forms existed during this early stage of the Earth's history.

What is significant, is that there are now signs they were producing oil.

"He's found good evidence that the processes that generate oil were active in a very early history," he says.

Rasmussen's discovery may have implications for exploration, Ward says.

"It focuses attention back on very old rocks as a possible places to look for more oil and gases," he says. _Source
So why do I say that the age of oil may be ending soon? Because while it takes 100,000 years (plus or minus) to make petroleum by natural processes, it only takes a matter of weeks -- from start of algae crop to harvesting and processing -- using modern methods. Yes, modern oil made this way is very expensive, but that is because we have just begun learning to create it. Within 20 years, Al Fin energy experts assure me that microbial fuels and energy will be fully price-competitive with petroleum, and rapidly scaling to match production within 30 years.

You may hear a lot of talk about "peak oil" in certain circles. The most likely kinds of peak oil you will see are "political peak oil" from bad energy policy or political conflict, and "peak demand" -- when consumers choose other forms of energy and fuel than petroleum. Peak demand can also occur from economic, or other forms of collapse, which we hope does not occur.

The beginning of oil, the end of oil. Mayhaps both.

Previously published at Al Fin

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Blogger Unknown said...

Peak oil is when global crude oil production peaks. This occurs when the cost of marginal supply exceeds the marginal value of oil to end-users. Being a very deep market, it aggregates geology, economics, politics, uses, and new technologies/alternatives from hundreds of countries.
The notion that it's 'peak demand' or a 'political peak' is an oversimplification of many variables in a complex system. That oil from older ages will probably be deeper and more expensive to extract, while at the same time, alternative energy sources (like algae, nuclear, etc.) may reduce the value of the oil.

9:14 AM  
Blogger al fin said...

Thanks for explaining what your personal definition of peak oil is, Jim. There are too many such definitions to keep track of, and if a commenter fails to provide his own definition in a comment, it is impossible to know which version of peak oil he is referring to.

The fuels market is a very deep market indeed. Besides the things you mention, there is also the speculative commodities market which has a greater bearing on prices since the rules were changed.

There is nothing people can say about this economic phenomenon which is not a simplification -- any linguist worth his salt could tell you that.

Thanks for your comment.

12:37 PM  

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