12 September 2008

An old story

Having gotten in the muddy waters of the petroleum business, I am reminded of an old story. In fact, this was probably the first time I was exposed to questionable and irrational behavior in science. The first time I needed a reality check.

It must have been 15 years ago, when I was a PhD student at ETH Zurich, Switzerland. We received a request for helium isotope analyses in groundwaters of Flanders, Belgium, by a certain Jack F. Kenney, head of Gas Resources Corporation in Houston. That came in quite handy, because the money we earned for analyzing a dozen or so samples helped to finance the last few months of my thesis. So I went to Belgium, where Kenney and I did the sampling.

Kenney told me about his ideas on the origin of oil. According to him, oil was not derived from biological matter, it was abiogenically formed in the deep Earth at high pressures and temperatures. I did not know very much about oil at that time (and I still am no expert), but I knew that this abiogenic theory of petroleum origin, made popular by Thomas Gold, was highly controversial. I wasn’t convinced, but I couldn’t really be sure. Only a bit later, when I had the samples analyzed and reported the results, I got a better idea of what kind of person this Jack Kenney was.

But first, a crash course in helium geochemistry (of which I am an expert) is needed. Helium in the air has a certain 3He/4He ratio (about 1 to a million). Compared to that standard, the isotope ratio in helium from the Earth’s mantle is about 10 times higher, whereas that in helium coming from the Earth’s crust is nearly 100 times lower. Thus, deep mantle helium and shallow crustal helium are easily and very clearly distinguished. Because Kenney thinks hydrocarbons come from very deep layers, he reckons that helium isotopes could help pinpoint oil reservoirs. In Flanders, he was looking for the high 3He/4He isotope ratios that are indicative of fluids derived from the Earth’s mantle. He wanted to sell the local government the idea to drill for oil there.

I understood that Kenney had hoped to find mantle helium. What we had measured, however, where very low 3He/4He ratios, perfectly typical for crustal fluids. There was not the slightest indication of mantle gases. This was what I wrote to him. But he did not accept that. He did not doubt the data, but he argued that even the slightest little bit of 3He that was present in the samples would be an indication of deep origin, and hence would justify to look for deep hydrocarbon sources in the area. We sent mails back and forth, but he wouldn’t give in. Well, we got paid and it was none of my business, after all, what he did with the data. I hope he couldn’t convince anyone to waste money on a multiply flawed and fake theory: First of all, there is probably no deep abiogenic oil, and secondly, even if it existed, the data did not give the slightest hint that it was to be found at that particular place.

So, I got my first taste of rather questionable theories paired with a willingness to commit outright fraud by an exponent of the petroleum business. Quite a shock, but I thought he would be an exception, for otherwise we wouldn’t ever have found any oil, I suppose. I don’t know if people like Chilingar and Gerhard also believe in Gold’s deep oil theory. Probably not. But their behavior with regard to climate change strikingly reminds me of Kenney's.

There is another strange connection. Gold’s theory is possibly a case of plagiarism, as Soviet scientists had come up with the idea much earlier, only Gold had made it known in the west. Kenney, now the foremost western proponent of the theory, publishes with Russian colleagues and cites old Soviet literature. The Chilingar-gang obviously also has Soviet roots and likes to cite Russian literature that is hard to check for western readers. Not that Russian science is not good – there have been some real Russian pioneers in the He isotope field for instance. Just a remarkable coincidence that some Russian scientists seem to hold very questionable ideas on both the origin of oil and global warming. And some American colleagues seem to agree.

So, my advice with regard to a reality check: Beware of Russian and American petroleum scientists, especially if they agree!


  1. He He !

    When you think of it, the story is quite funny. Since we all contain some ultra-minute amount of 3He, including migratory birds; the next time you wonder where the birds came from in the spring, rest assured, due to their 3H they must come from the mantle.


  2. “The suggestion that petroleum might have arisen from some transformation of squashed fish or biological detritus is surely the silliest notion to have been entertained by substantial numbers of persons over an extended period of time.” — Sir Fred Hoyle, 1982