Rolf Maurer on Abiotic Oil
Abiotic Oil and the Womb of the Earth
Could the symbolic import of a neglected aspect of the Peak Oil debate hold the key not just to the energy predicament, but to a global social and economic transformation, as well?
Rolf Maurer 9/4/09
In The Forge and the Crucible (1979), philosopher Micea Eliade’s overview of Western and Eastern alchemical thought, he observes how European practitioners believed that if a mine’s mineral riches were plundered to exhaustion, it was simply a matter of closing up the site, like a fallow field, and giving it time for its ores to grow back again. Taking inspiration from the life ways of Goddess-oriented agrarian culture, this reverent attitude was a matter of patience and timing, something in short supply in today’s world of profit-obsessed global corporatism.
But what if the contemporary process of petroleum production was also recast as a replenishable gift from the earth?
While agribusiness has replaced crop rotation, seed exchanging and other traditional farming practices with artificial methods, resulting in higher yields (and a host of environmental problems), Big Oil, both as creation and impetus of the industrial age, never had a chance to develop in a balanced fashion with the planet it imposes upon. Though both farming and oil extraction involve harvesting from the earth, they embody different philosophies regarding humanity’s relationship with its home.
ExxonMobil, Shell and their brethren, to quote the eloquence of progressive rock lyricist John Payne (Asia, GPS), could be said to be extracting petro-blood from “her skin” in a sort of desperate act of geological assault. Desperate, because the drive is on for ANYcombustionable hydrocarbon, regardless of how expensive, or harmful, it is to refine, be it Canadian tar sands, or American oil shale.
What’s behind this cancerous mania? The promulgation of consumerism the world over, with its constantly growing demands for electricity, autos and the rest of the artifice-laden Western sphere of creature comforts–all mercilessly badgered by unrestrained capitalism’s insatiable crusade for ever-larger markets and endless growth. And so, the world finds itself years from Hubbert’s Peak–the point beyond which ever-more energy goes into oil extraction than is derived from it.
Noted oil industry authorities and researchers Colin Campbell, Richard Heinberg(1) and others in the Peak Oil camp have been sounding the death knell for industrial society for years because of these realities. Equally vocal Peak Oil deniers, like Bjorn Londstrom (2), insist that oil will be abundantly available for decades to come.
But what of the third possibility, Abiotic Oil? Dismissed, often by both sides, with knee-jerk defensiveness (3), abiotic theory is predicated on the idea that hydrocarbons are not the byproduct of the organic decay of prehistoric plants and animals, but are actually continually created by the flow of magma from the earth’s mantle. In short, Western abiotic advocates like acclaimed physicist Freeman Dyson, the late Thomas Gold (4), as well as Peak Oil defector Thomas Engdahl (5) conclude oil is not just in abundant supply, but is a renewable resource, to boot–which brings us back to the prescient analogy of alchemical mining.
When abandoned wells are inadvertantly re-opened at a later time, they are often found to be “recharged” with new oil flowing up from deep in the earth (6). Because the replenishment rate is at least several years, this suggest the potential to maintain an industrial infrastructure, but only within a steady-state economic setting, wherein the consumptive doctrine of infinite growth must, of necessity, be abandoned. Depending on the rate of replenishment, concommitant with this more sane state of affairs, is the prospect of a cleaner environment, as the rate of pollution would not keep increasing exponentially, giving Nature a chance to absorb, and, perhaps, even regularly remediate its effects. If there is merit to this theory, it would be the closest thing to the Earth Mother extending humanity an invitation to a fruitful partnership.
Originating with Stalin’s Cold War mandate for Soviet fuel autonomy (7), abiotic oil research in the East may be the reason for Yukos’ prodigious output (8), in contrast to decreasing conventional production in much of the West. Vietnam’s VietSov oil company has also been using drilling techniques pioneered by Russian and Ukranian petroleum geologists with remarkable results.
If it is true the oil industry makes more money by keeping oil in the ground than in distributing it, it is understandable why it is loath to support mainlining research into advanced drilling techniques–Halliburton may be a partner in VietSov (9), but it is doubtful it would openly help spearhead Western abiotic exploration. To do so would not just virtually end oil as a market commodity, but, because of its parent relationship to such industries as transportation, plastics, specialty chemicals, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, could potentially end the tyranny of commodity-based economics, altogether.
In this light, a society that eschews patriarchal social control through artificially-imposed limits, in favor of nurturing human potential and community, as espoused by high-tech visionaries like Jacque Fresco of The Venus Project (9), suddenly seems far more plausible. Below the surface (puns aside), such an Eliadean-inspired transition would be in synch with the much-anticpated Global Shift of 2012.