MadSci Network: Earth Sciences

Re: Results of efforts to prove/disprove T. Gold's theories on hydrocarbons?

Date: Fri Sep 17 17:11:11 1999
Posted By: David Kopaska-Merkel, Staff Hydrogeology Division, Geological Survey of Alabama
Area of science: Earth Sciences
ID: 933635752.Es

Dear Sir:

Thank you for your question about Dr. Gold's theory of the inorganic origin 
of hydrocarbons. There are always in science theories proposed that are at 
odds with prevailing ideas. These theories are commonly considered to be 
"crackpot" ideas and many of them prove to be wrong. Of course, some turn 
out to be right, and one of the most famous is Wegener's theory of 
continental drift which has become the modern theory of plate tectonics. 
Dr. Gold's theory is still in that gray area populated by unusual theories 
that have not yet been proven wrong or right. The well was indeed drilled 
in the Siljan Ring, but as far as I am aware the results were inconclusive 
(as I think they were likely to be, given the nature of the theory and the 
nature of the test). 

Why is Dr. Gold's theory considered a crackpot idea? Wegener's theory of 
continental drift was dismissed because neither he nor anyone else could 
come up with a plausible mechanism for how the continents could move. Once 
the mechanisms were discerned, the theory was readily accepted. Gold's 
theory is a little different. We have a well-established mechanism for the 
generation of hydrocarbons from decaying organic matter. It can be proven 
experimentally that this process works, and it has been proven many times. 
Also, the predictions derived from this theory have led to the successful 
discovery of many hydrocarbon fields. This is the ultimate practical test 
of a scientific theory:  it makes successful predictions. Dr. Gold's 
contention is that much, or perhaps most, hydrocarbons have a different 
sources. The trouble is, Dr. Gold's theory is very difficult to test (to 
prove or disprove). His source for hydrocarbons is deep, and therefore 
expensive to drill to. Also, there are many hydrocarbons in the earth 
system that are of undoubted organic origin for a whole host of reasons 
including their chemical composition. How are we to recognize hydrocarbons 
generated in a different way? It can be done, but it would not be easy. 
Most tellingly, because the theory of the organic origin of hydrocarbons 
permits the successful exploration for hydrocarbons, the oil companies are 
reluctant to spend money investigating an alternate theory.

I do believe that Dr. Gold's theory will eventually be tested definitively. 
If it proves to be valid, then oil companies will be more than happy to 
test it further, develop it, and use it to find oil, as they have already 
done with the theory of organic origin of hydrocarbons. So, time will tell 
if Dr. Gold is right, but so far as I know no convincing evidence has yet 
emerged to support his theory.

David C. Kopaska-Merkel
Geological Survey of Alabama
PO Box 869999
Tuscaloosa AL 35486-6999
(205) 349-2852
FAX (205) 349-2861

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