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Oil Might Be a Renewable Resource, and Other Things You Did Not Know

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Or, “Thank God there’s a North Carolina.”

Yep. We have a new governor, which means new secretaries of this and that. Meet John Skvarla, new secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR, to tarheels). To cut to the chase, here’s your takeaway idea: maybe oil is a renewable resource. And he doesn’t mean in the wait-45-million-years-and-we’ll-get-more sense.

“The Russians for instance have always drilled oil as if it’s a renewable resource,” says Skvarla. “And so far they haven’t been proven wrong.

“There’s a lot of different scientific opinion on that.”

Yep. There’s just TONS of scientists out there figuring that maybe oil is like those trick cups Barbies used to drink from, where you tilt them and the stuff vanishes, and then it magically fills back up when you set it down. TONS of scientists.

Except oops, actually not. There’s a crazy theory that crude oil comes from phytoplankton and another that it just sort of trickles up from the earth’s mantle (here’s a wonderfully simple dismissal of the notion), but you’ll have to work pretty hard to find anybody in mainstream science who buys into it. Here’s a very nice summation — and debunking — of the theory by the Independent Weekly‘s Lisa Sorg.

All that said, it’s almost anticlimax to note that Skvarla believes climate science is unresolved: “I have studied this every day for 10 years and there is a great divergence of opinion on this. I’m not ready to say which is right or wrong.” Never saw that coming, did you.

We’re still waiting for his take on sea level rise.

* Yep — edited title to change “Natural” to “Renewable.” Oh for the days of editors, to save writers from themselves. Thanks, @Robinlloyd99!

Scott Huler About the Author: A writer who commonly explores science, culture, and the relationship between the two. Follow on Twitter @huler.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. littleredtop 1:58 pm 01/8/2013

    Climate science is unquestionably unresolved. Unfortunately, there’s money in it for those who support the theory that the inhabitants of this planet have somehow affected the gradual warming that has occurred since the ice age.

    Link to this
  2. 2. alan6302 2:42 pm 01/8/2013

    The internal combustion engine will be banned because of pollution. Users have continuously rationalized the health effect and it will soon bite us in the heart. We will not run out of oil…we will die from it.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Dr_Zinj 3:08 pm 01/8/2013

    John Skvarla is either an idiot, or a fraud. He certainly doesn’t show that he’s ever qualified for a bachelor of science in ANY field.

    Link to this
  4. 4. BillR 3:37 pm 01/8/2013

    I like how he says “I have studied this every day for 10 years and there is a great divergence of opinion on this. I’m not ready to say which is right or wrong.” Evidently, his idea of studying anything is weighing the opinions of others. And who the others may be is also a good question.

    Link to this
  5. 5. M Tucker 3:51 pm 01/8/2013

    We don’t need to ask what political party the new governor is from do we? Wake me when Republicans stop saying stupid things…that WILL be news.

    Link to this
  6. 6. dubay.denis 3:54 pm 01/8/2013

    Wishful thinking, it’s the new science!

    Link to this
  7. 7. Unksoldr 3:54 pm 01/8/2013

    There are no renewable resources on Earth, it is a closed system that receives energy from the Sun then turns it into biomass. And, as we all know even the Sun isn’t eternal.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Scrat 4:04 pm 01/8/2013

    There was a noted astronomy professor, Thomas Gold, back when I was in college who was a huge proponent of the abiogenic hydrocarbons hypothesis. The guy was not an idiot by any means but he was convinced of the idea because there were so many primordial hydrocarbons in meteors and asteroids.

    I heard him give a lecture when I was at my 5th college reunion in 1986 (after just having gotten laid off from my petroleum geologist job when oil was at $10 per barrel – ahh, the good old days).

    Anyway – I started asking him some very pointed questions about spectorgraphic biologic hydrocarbon signatures, thermodynamic issues and other topics which he was totally unprepared to answer. I wasn’t trying to be snarky – just trying to get a handle on how this idea was supported.

    I understand the subsequently, a deep well was drilled in Sweden in the fracture system of an impact crater, the idea being that impact would have caused fractures down to the mantle, allowing these abiogenic hydrocarbons to reach the upper crust. Not surprisingly, they well was a dry hole.

    Link to this
  9. 9. RSchmidt 4:07 pm 01/8/2013

    It should be no surprise that a denier would lie to advance their ideology, even an idiotic lie like this. The deniers that plague sciam do it all the time. There is no lower limit to how low the anti-science, right wing fanatics will go to fill their pockets. The blue states need to cut the red states loose as their intellectual dead weight is only dragging you down. Let the hillbillies collapse into a dark age while you move forward.

    Link to this
  10. 10. huler 4:13 pm 01/8/2013

    Okay, stepping in here — deep breath, @RSchmidt. Nobody’s less happy than I am about this: it’s my state! but blue/red dichotomy not necessarily at issue here, to say nothing of comments about hillbillies that approach hate-mongering. The idiocy of the scientific and government claims is all we need to deal with here, yes? We can angrily disagree without resorting to ugliness.

    Link to this
  11. 11. RSchmidt 4:14 pm 01/8/2013

    @Unksoldr, I don’t think renewable means ad infinitum. It means that all things remaining equal, the resource will regenerate itself, unlike oil for example. And because we are talking about resources for human consumption it is implied that we are dealing with human time frames. So trees are a renewable resource because you can plant more. It would be absurd to suggest that trees are not renewable because some day the planet will be engulfed by the sun. Context is everything.

    Link to this
  12. 12. RSchmidt 4:30 pm 01/8/2013

    @huler, This guy is your elected official. He represents the people of your state. So he makes you folks look like you just crawled out of the mountains. You want to be taken seriously, vote for someone who isn’t an idiot. No matter what subject, whether it be climate change, evolution or human rights we can always count on the red states to; deny the facts, spread lies and misinformation and hold back progress. Two thousand years of scientific literacy separate the red from the blue, we have a long wait if we are expecting the red states to catch up.

    Link to this
  13. 13. priddseren 4:47 pm 01/8/2013

    I do enjoy how warmists use information like this to make it seem like real science is a joke and only what they believe is all there is. In fact Abiotic petroleum and natural gas has tested in a lab to be possible. There are research occurring doing actual experiments in the field(I know real science and actually finding real evidence is something Warmists cant conceive of) and the results are promising but unlike warmists, real scientists dont start making claims of discovery and pushing their desires as fact. They actually wait until they prove something is or is not.

    I know the last think Warmists want is anyone considering oil or natural gas to be the result of chemical processes in the mantle, otherwise we will never stop using it. Not that I am an advocate of never stopping, it could be that abiotic oil is actually useful in the deep crust and we may want to leave it there.

    The fact is oil coming from biology is a theory though one that is far more likely to be accurate but abiotic oil is possible and its existence does require the old theory to be discarded. The fact is oil can be created in a lab in the conditions needed for abiotic oil and their is oil or other hydrocarbons in the universe that did not require biology.

    Still this article is clearly propoganda to distract people from the warmist theory and its lack of real science.

    Link to this
  14. 14. Dredd 4:49 pm 01/8/2013

    Good post.

    Another stream of evidence that psychopaths make it into government on a regular basis.

    http://blogdredd.blogspot.com/2012/12/when-you-are-governed-by-psychopaths-4.html

    Link to this
  15. 15. levet1066 4:54 pm 01/8/2013

    To RSchmidt, 40% 0f Americans believe the world formed as the bible says,so the problem is not in one small state. It’s not much better up here in most of Canada so I will refrain from judging. I write them off as people afraid of having nowhere to go when the end comes and having your neighbors and friends shun you for not believing. It won’t change anytime soon so all we can do is present the facts as science has proven through study and testing and hope enough sink in.

    Link to this
  16. 16. krohleder 4:59 pm 01/8/2013

    You have to think like someone trying to fit everything into a religious world view. Their logic is that if the world is 6000 years old there is no way it could take millions of years to create oil. Also God would not let humans destroy the earth; it is his creation and is impervious to us… unless you count the book of Revelations. Anyway it is probably better just to stick to real science given the human brains tendency for cognitive coherence-driven story telling.

    Link to this
  17. 17. CristóbalKG 4:59 pm 01/8/2013

    Personal attacks on an individual or personal attacks on all the citizens of a state are poor form no matter what your occupation may be. I am embarrassed to read such a…uh…unprofessionally written article. Is there any reason why the facts cannot be stated about what the man said and a plainly stated disagreement? Why all that other stuff? Shame on you.

    Link to this
  18. 18. smartaggie 5:04 pm 01/8/2013

    @ Littleredtop. Your complete dismissal of the entire (statistically speaking) field of climate science shows just how willfully ignorant you are. There is money to be made from denying anthropogenic climate change. In fact, the largest profits ever made were made on the back of climate change denial. SMFH at people like you who are purposefully dismissing all of the available data on this as a money-driven opinion. Please provide any data at all that back up your assertion that “Climate science is unquestionably unresolved.”

    Finally, I take great umbrage at your statement that we have “somehow” affected the gradual warming since the ice age. We know exactly how, by releasing incomprehensible amounts of gaseous carbon from ancient carbon sinks. There is no question about this.

    Finally, your statement that we have seen a consistent trend of gradual warming is factually incorrect. Try the little ice age and the Younger-Dryas for starters.

    It amazes me that people in our society feel that their personal opinion is just as valid a viewpoint as the scientific consensus on this issue.

    Link to this
  19. 19. VelocitySquared 5:07 pm 01/8/2013

    Also the world is flat and at the center of the universe.

    Link to this
  20. 20. smartaggie 5:12 pm 01/8/2013

    @priddseren. Your improper use of the word theory shows just how up on science you actually are, huh? Just because it sounds like science doesnt make it so. http://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus-intermediate.htm

    I love how deniers act like there is some massive conspiracy among the entire multi-disciplinary endeavor that is climate science, but quickly glom on to anything suggesting otherwise put out by scientists paid directly by the energy industry.

    Link to this
  21. 21. Klintus Fang 5:14 pm 01/8/2013

    disagree with climate science if you wish, but oppose it for reasons that make sense.

    if you think the reason for the research supporting anthropomorphic climate change is because “there is money in it”, please, explain how you make more money by doing research that opposes the agendas of the energy companies (some of the most profitable businesses on the planet earth) rather than by doing research that supports their point of view.

    The idea that it is more profitable to oppose the most profitable companies on the planet than to do research that supports them is absurd.

    Link to this
  22. 22. foremancr 5:15 pm 01/8/2013

    Here we go again with another politician that was elected because he looked good in front of a camera. I don’t blame the politician for being stupid. I blame the people who elected him. They didn’t bother to read or listen to see if he knew something. Like the late Ted Stephens once described the internet as a bunch of tubes and pipes. Just think, he was in charge of the internet during his stay in Washington. Saying wonderful sound bytes isn’t intelligence. Why are we listening to politician that has no background in science. Why don’t they back to the old standby of kissing babies and leave the science to people that knows what they are talking about.

    Link to this
  23. 23. Shoshin 5:17 pm 01/8/2013

    20. smartaggie:

    I love how people are so misinformed that they thiunk that:

    1. There is still a “consensus”.

    2. That consensus has any meaning at all in science.

    Two strikes against you already. What will be your third?

    Link to this
  24. 24. Shoshin 5:22 pm 01/8/2013

    Now, just to set the record straight, oil is renewable. The earth is naturally making oil everyday. Algae is getting buried and cooked as we speak.

    The problem is that the renewability is on a timescale not relative nor meaningful to people.

    Link to this
  25. 25. huler 5:29 pm 01/8/2013

    Hello, friends; stepping in again. First, @foremancr and @RSchmidt, Skvarla is not an elected official: he was appointed. Second, regardless of how you think he makes all North Carolinians look, his ignorance on this matter (and the ignorance of many in our state government) is just that: his, and theirs. If we’re accused of being red, what about 2008? We narrowly swung for President Obama while electing a Democratic governor. Does that mean we were a blue state until November? Life is much more complicated. Thanks to @levet1066 for understanding that. @CristobalKG, I take seriously accusations of unprofessional work or personal attack, so I’ve reread my post. I can find attack only on Skvarla’s opinions, not on Skvarla.

    Link to this
  26. 26. RSchmidt 5:33 pm 01/8/2013

    @Shoshin, more evidence that you are scientifically illiterate;

    1. There is still a “consensus”.

    Yes there is, can you provide a list of climate scientists that disagree AGW or are you just lying again?

    2. That consensus has any meaning at all in science.

    Obviously you haven’t heard of something called peer review which is a cornerstone of science. But consensus is also important when trying to impress on governments and their populations that the findings are supported which is what the IPCC is tasked to do.

    As usual, instead of providing facts, you’ve come to spread lies and misinformation. Is that really the kind of person you are or do you only sink this low for climate change?

    Link to this
  27. 27. RSchmidt 5:51 pm 01/8/2013

    @huler, unfortunate to be painted with the same brush as those of your state. But what is it about the red states that make them so backward? If it is so wrong to define the red states in those terms why is it also so predictable? I certainly wouldn’t claim that everyone in a red state was a climate denier. That is obviously false. Yet red states are where we find the majority of creationists, homophobes and climate deniers.

    “In the United States, ideology is an effective predictor of party identification, where conservatives are more prevalent among Republicans, and moderates and liberals among independents and Democrats. A shift in ideology is often associated with in a shift in political views.[11] For example, when the number of conservatives rose from 2008 to 2009, the number of individuals who felt that global warming was being exaggerated in the media also rose” Saad, Lydia (11 Apr 2009). “Increased Number Think Global Warming Is “Exaggerated”". Gallup. Retrieved 22 Dec 2009

    So while you are asking me not to judge the red states I am asking why being a resident of a red state makes one more likely to be scientifically illiterate, intolerant and religiously fanatical? Understanding that there will be those that are intelligent, liberal and progressive.

    Finally, In a democratic society are the people not responsible for the choices their elected officials make?

    Link to this
  28. 28. Siriusofdelf 5:58 pm 01/8/2013

    Who are the morons voting for these idiots???

    Link to this
  29. 29. CherryBombSim 6:49 pm 01/8/2013

    @ Scrat: At 20,000 feet they were drilling solid granite, which must have been really exciting. Wishful thinking dies hard, though. At least as of last year, there were other people drilling in the same area.

    Sounds like you and I had exactly parallel career paths, btw.

    Link to this
  30. 30. Shoshin 6:53 pm 01/8/2013

    RSchmidt:

    Your lack of understanding of science is breathtaking.

    Link to this
  31. 31. MARCHER 7:14 pm 01/8/2013

    Shoshin,

    Your inability to contradict his argument is nothing surprising.

    Link to this
  32. 32. Gord Davison 9:08 pm 01/8/2013

    I suppose he believes that an omnipotent creature will magically create more oil by waving his arm like he did when the Universe was created 6000 years ago?

    Link to this
  33. 33. SteveLaudig 9:09 pm 01/8/2013

    Doomed. Get used to it.

    Link to this
  34. 34. engineer238 11:31 pm 01/8/2013

    Actually, hydrocarbons like petroleum or natural gas might be able to be produced from CO2 and other compounds using process heat from specially designed nuclear reactors. Proposal for such reactors are already being considered as topics of research. If such a reactor were built then oil or fossil fuels might one day become renewable resources, so this idea is not completely absurd.

    Link to this
  35. 35. Soccerdad 12:05 am 01/9/2013

    There’s plenty of stupidity to go around in both political parties. Witness the wasted subsidies for ethanol.

    Link to this
  36. 36. Elfsiren 2:09 am 01/9/2013

    I have a question: I am a creationist, but I don’t believe the earth is 6000 years old. I’m not Republican (I’m not from the US). I believe in global warming. I don’t believe we are incapable of destroying the earth because God made it for us. I am currently enrolled in a program dedicated to energy and energy sources. Which category do I fall in?
    On topic: I haven’t read any of the content provided by the links, but just because Russia has been drilling oil since your grandfather’s time doesn’t automatically mean the oil is renewable. Even is this process has shown to be feasible in a lab doesn’t mean it works in nature or that it can work on a big enough, fast enough scale for it to count as renewable. In the mean time, whether or not you believe in global warming, times are shitty and wenhave to change some things to pull through.

    Link to this
  37. 37. sault 11:01 am 01/9/2013

    @Elfsiren:

    You are a sensible person who has integrated their personal beliefs with reality with a higher degree of sucess than a lot of people. The main complaint that a lot of people have are with YOUNG EARTH Creationists who blatantly deny the clear evidence that their historical timeline is a little off.

    Keep an open mind…that’s why we all have that ridiculously huge melon on top of our shoulders to begin with!

    Link to this
  38. 38. sault 11:06 am 01/9/2013

    I’m sorry, but the Earth’s mantle is to highly-oxidizing to have long-chain hydrocarbons pumping through it and its temperature profile makes it EXTREMELY DIFFICULT to allow them to form in the first place.

    Besides, I don’t think Soviet petroleum geology is a reliable source of information on which to base our energy policy. Pleasing the Politburo / the Kremlin was more important to the long-term survival of these scientists than actually getting their facts straight.

    Link to this
  39. 39. Scientifik 2:31 pm 01/9/2013

    @Elfsiren

    If you don’t believe that earth is 6000 years old, and you don’t deny evolution, you are not a true creationist.

    Link to this
  40. 40. M Tucker 2:43 pm 01/9/2013

    Let’s not get too smug about red state stupidity. What state is Representative Darrell Issa from?

    Let’s not think that only ignorant state executives can nominate ignorant cabinet members. What about Obama’s appointment of Chuck Hagel to Defense Secretary? Google Chuck Hagel and rape.

    And I know that it is not only Republicans who say stupid things but they do dominate the field. But, to name a few Democrats who say stupid thing and hold stupid policies, we have Senate Democrat Joe Manchin who aggressively ran against any government action to address AGW and VA’s State Senate Democratic Leader Dick Saslaw recently said that he does not care about the long term threats from burying radioactive mine tailings because he’s “not going to be here.”

    I think we should make our representatives defend their stupid statements and positions in order to promote public conversation and education.

    Link to this
  41. 41. ge556 3:00 pm 01/9/2013

    littleredtop, the dispute is not about the “gradual warming that has occurred since the ice age”, it is about the accelerating warming of the last few decades. If you can’t get that much right, you’re not likely to understand much.

    Link to this
  42. 42. ge556 3:12 pm 01/9/2013

    Why Climate Deniers Have No Scientific Credibility – In One Pie Chart

    13,950 peer-reviewed climate articles 1991-2012
    24 reject global warming

    http://www.desmogblog.com/2012/11/15/why-climate-deniers-have-no-credibility-science-one-pie-chart

    Link to this
  43. 43. Elfsiren 8:50 pm 01/9/2013

    @sault Thank you. I wasn’t sure which category to be “shoved” in.
    @Scientifik Perhaps (I am assuming you’re American, please correct me if wrong) in America you are seen as creationist ONLY if you believe in a young earth. Outside there, I can assure you that a Creationist believes that God created the earth. As far as I know, this is the actual definition. I have never actually met someone outside the US who believes the earth is 6000 years old. (Though I’m young and not that well traveled so I don’t know how much weight that has). Us sensible Christians, and we do exist, scoff at these things. We don’t believe in the rabble, we’re just too damn quiet.

    Link to this
  44. 44. engineer238 11:00 pm 01/9/2013

    @ge556
    Though I personally do agree that the earth is indeed getting warmer, and that human activity likely is a contributing factor (though probably not the only one), it is a fallacy to assume that just because the vast majority of the scientific field disagrees with findings that the dissenters have no scientific credibility. There are a multitude of examples that show that the non-mainstream scientist is the one who is ultimately correct. One case is the theory of continental drift, which was not accepted by the majority of the geology field for many years, but ultimately proved correct. Another example is Michael Faraday’s proposal that not only was there only one type of electricity (a belief not held by the greater scientific community) but also the idea of electromagnetic flux surrounding conductors which applied electromagnetic forces in free space. Faraday even died before this theory, which led to Maxwell’s equations, was proven correct. As it turns out we scientist tend to be an arrogant bunch and are often unwilling to consider explanations of phenomena which challenge our pre-existing notions of how nature works. It also does not help when the people paying the bills also have strong convictions. Organizations who fund scientific research are often not scientist and have strong convictions on how nature works. This ultimately leads to only scientist who agree with the sponsor or can ‘prove’ the validity the sponsor’s conviction receiving most of the funding. This can lead to a bias in the ‘consensus’ of the scientific community. There are a couple of lessons in all this. There is always the possibility of bias in science especially in pop-subjects which may ultimately lead to science giving the wrong answer. The general public should always be skeptical of scientific consensus and do the research to see who is funding the research to determine whether the conclusions might be biased. The final take away is that just because someone disagrees with the mainstream science community doesn’t make them wrong; many of the best breakthroughs come from seemingly bizarre ideas that are not widely accepted but ultimately prove the be correct.

    Link to this
  45. 45. engineer238 11:03 pm 01/9/2013

    @ge556
    sorry there was a mistake in my above response.

    “it is a fallacy to assume that just because the vast majority of the scientific field disagrees with findings that the dissenters have no scientific credibility.”

    should read

    “it is a fallacy to assume that just because the vast majority of the scientific field agrees with an idea that the dissenters have no scientific credibility.”

    Link to this
  46. 46. bucketofsquid 6:03 pm 01/10/2013

    Just a side note regarding creationists: The vast majority of creationists don’t buy in to the silly 6,000 years postulate developed by 1 man over a thousand years after the death of Christ. This person decided the Bible was literally true even when passages blatantly contradict each other. He sat down and added up the years of lifespan given for each person in the Bible and came up with a number roughly around 6,000 years. The obvious issues with this are the many generations without lifespans provided and the entire time in Eden with no passage of time provided. The bald statement that the Bible is the history of the Hebrew people and not all humans doesn’t help his credibility any either. Then there are the 26 known different versions of the story of creation and the earliest version of the story of Noah stating clearly that it was a valley that flooded and not the whole world.

    We can be creationists while still realizing that the Bible is a behavioral guide promising salvation and written rather simply to allow the widest target audience instead of the end all, be all of existence. After all, the Bible doesn’t mention cars so they must not exist right? Somehow I just don’t agree that cars don’t exist.

    Link to this
  47. 47. kenwa2010 6:21 pm 01/11/2013

    yes. oil is a natural, renewable resource… when it comes from vegetables or algae. the best oil comes from cannabis hemp marijuana.

    accorded graphs of crude oil drilling, as shown in wikipedia under petroleum depletion, we have until 2015AD until the depletion of crude oil below consumption levels.

    we need to invent every energy source that we can, and apply only the safe energy sources to the economy before 2015AD.

    kenwa

    Link to this
  48. 48. Bill_Crofut 9:12 am 01/12/2013

    Regarding the age of the Earth:

    C. Patterson, G. Tilton and M. Inghram authored the seminal paper which catapulted us from “…the generally accepted estimate of 3.3 x 10^9 yr…” to “…about 4.5 x 10^9 yr…” (1955. Age of the Earth. SCIENCE, 21 January, p. 69).

    The paper is replete with assumptions and the following warning which would seem to have gone unheeded:

    “It should be recognized that an approximate age value is sufficient and should be viewed with considerable skepticism until the basic assumptions that are involved in the method of calculations are verified” (Ibid., p. 75).

    The basis for my suggestion that the warning has gone unheeded is from current dogma:

    “These denials of modern geology are astonishing in the extreme to any scientist familiar with the depth and strength of the evidence for a 4.54 billion-year-old earth.”

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-h-bailey/what-on-earth-do-they-thi_b_2162651.html

    The “age” of the Earth, after nearly 60 years of refinement, is 4.54 instead of 4.5 billion years. Where in the scientific literature has the issue of the assumptions noted by Patterson, et. al. been addressed in the development of 0.04 billion years?

    Regarding the Genesis Flood as allegedly contained in a valley, one can find no justification for the assertion in Scripture:

    THE BOOK OF GENESIS

    7:20. The water was fifteen cubits higher than the
    mountains which it covered.

    [Catholic Bible. (c) 2000 CD. Douay Rheims Translation. Murray, KY: A production of Catholic Software]

    Link to this

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