We talk about ‘fossil fuels’. This is a question begging term. It simply assumes that oil and natural gas (and coal, for that matter) are the products of heat and pressure on fossilised plants and animals. If this is so, it stands to reason that, because a finite quantity of plant and animal material has existed, we will eventually run out.
I think that this is problematical from several points of view. Firstly, is this what geologists actually believe? If it were true, it seems to me, the price of fossil fuels (as I shall now cease to call them) ought to be rising steeply. As it happens, the price of energy fluctuates and is presently at a low.
The estimates of recoverable reserves of these hydro-carbons go up and up. Maybe this contributes to low prices. If we discovered a huge deposit of, say, copper ore, we would expect the price of copper to fall.
The second problem is that hydro-carbons are not only to be found earthside. Astronomers tell us that methane and other hydro-carbons are detectable in the makeup of comets. Did they originate from biological material? I don’t think so.
What is more, oil deposits have been discovered at tremendous depths – tens of thousands of feet below the earth’s surface. Did pre-historic plants and animals burrow down before dying?
Serious scientists in Russia and The Ukraine (as well as Thomas Gold of pulsar fame) have another theory. Hydro-carbons, they say, are constantly being formed in the earth’s mantle. Experiments have demonstrated that they can be formed in the laboratory and in the absence of biological material. We know that decomposing biological matter can result in the production of hydro-carbons but we also know that that is not the only way to produce them.
Another piece of evidence supportive of the abiotic theory is that some ‘exhausted’ oil wells have been observed to have been replenished.
Energy companies (aka Big Oil) etc certainly would have an incentive to persuade us that the supply of hydro-carbons is limited. But what if it is not?
The Greens worry about CO2, produced when hydro-carbons are combusted. That is an argument for another day. What Greens do not typically do is to rejoice that fracking produces fuels that emit less carbon and other ‘pollutants’.
I am not certain that the abiotic theory accounts for all or most of the fuel we get from the ground. I am certain that it should be better known and that a serious debate should take place. If it is indeed true, then we should rejoice. The possibility of virtually limitless energy bodes very well for developing nations, whose women and children suffer serious respiratory diseases from burning wood and animal dung.