Did you hear that Alaska has more oil than the Middle East?

Busting the myths about cheap and unlimited oil being broadcast by Rush Limbaugh, Jerome Corsi and other dinosaurs.

Published August 18, 2008 11:03AM (EDT)

Petroleum may be in short supply these days, but the United States does have a related surplus: myths of oil abundance.

You don't have to drill deep into our political discourse to find suspect stories about oil, with politicians peddling the flagrantly false notion that China is producing oil off the coast of Florida, while right-wing activist Jerome Corsi claims oil is not a fossil fuel but "a natural product the Earth generates constantly."

Such declarations serve a political purpose: to make oil drilling seem like an easy solution to our current energy crisis, to marginalize warnings that we are running short on oil, and to stymie efforts at conservation or developing alternatives to fossil fuels.

Along with these high-profile claims, an array of books, Internet forums and YouTube videos constitute a subterranean layer of storytelling, creating a narrative of perpetually cheap domestic oil being denied to us by a dictatorial government. These stories may be working: Offshore oil drilling is now favored by 63 percent of the electorate. But there's another side to them: They reveal our inability to accept that the United States is not always a land of plenty.

"In America, we're a frontier nation, and so the idea is that just beyond the next ridge is the perfect farmland, a giant oil field or an abundant supply of timber," says Robert Kaufmann, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Boston University. "People don't like the idea that the frontier is now closed and we've got to live within limits."

These narratives also require spectacularly limited scientific literacy about oil: what it is, how we find it, how much remains. Let's take a brief tour of some claims worthy of tabloid headlines.

"Oil is not a fossil fuel!"
What is oil? A wealth of evidence shows it is a fossil fuel derived from ancient marine microorganisms. Essentially, oil comes from plankton fossils that have been covered by sediment at the bottom of bodies of water. Occasionally in such settings -- when there is no oxygen around and the temperature stays between about 120 and 210 degrees for up to a couple of million years -- these fossils become heated into oil.

The upshot: Oil is a finite resource that takes a long time to create, but we use it quickly. So wouldn't it be great if oil were an inexhaustible, inorganic substance? A few researchers, notably Soviet scientists in the 1950s, have tried unsuccessfully to make this case. Corsi, known for his attacks on John Kerry, and now making the media rounds with a loopy book on Barack Obama, also promotes this view. In 2005, Corsi coauthored a book, "Black Gold Stranglehold," asserting that oil is inorganic and abundant, and he continues pumping out related columns at the conservative current-events site WorldNetDaily.

Corsi prefers to cite a lone American academic supporter of the idea: Thomas Gold, the late Cornell astrophysicist and habitual scientific maverick who proposed that inorganic methane shoots up from the earth's mantle into the crust and turns into oil. (Most methane is, like oil, an organic fossil fuel made of hydrogen and carbon.)

Gold never fully detailed how this supposedly happens. And there are other problems with the idea. To name only two: Inorganic methane has been found only in tiny quantities, and it has a specific chemical signature never found around oil deposits. "No one would doubt that inorganic hydrocarbons do occur," says Michael Lewan, a petroleum geochemist with the U.S. Geological Survey. "But the oil we are currently producing is of organic origin."

The evidence for oil's organic origins is robust and diverse. Briefly, it includes biomarkers, or chemical compounds found in both ancient organisms and petroleum formed at the same time; geochemical evidence allowing scientists to match types of oil with their source rocks; lab experiments mimicking oil formation; and literally a world of geological data helping us find oil today.

With that in mind, consider Corsi's level of argumentation in this November 2005 WorldNetDaily article, as he discusses Thunder Horse, a drilling area that BP operates in the Gulf of Mexico:

Moreover, Thunder Horse also defies "fossil-fuel" oil theorists who like to argue that oil comes from dead dinosaurs and decaying ancient forests. With the water depth of nearly 2 miles, Thunder Horse is truly an ultra-deep project. From the floor of the Gulf, BP has drilled down another 6 miles to hit oil. What evidence is there that any ancient dinosaur ever walked on land that is now 8 miles down? Moreover, geologists identify the deposits in which BP has found oil in the Thunder Horse Field as Miocene, a period that occurred in the Cenozoic Era, some 24,000 years ago. Dinosaurs by then were long gone, having disappeared at the end of the Mesozoic Era, some 65 million years ago.

Corsi makes multiple scientific mistakes here. Scientists never argue that oil comes from "dead dinosaurs and decaying ancient forests." Again, oil derives from fossilized marine microorganisms. The Miocene was not a point in time "24,000 years ago." It lasted from about 5 million years ago to 23 million years ago. In geological language, it's an epoch, not a period, and according to BP, the rocks at Thunder Horse appear to be 5 to 11 million years old. Moreover, oil tends to seep upward over time, so we typically extract it from rocks that are younger than those in which it was formed anyway. Finally, while dinosaur references are irrelevant to oil, basic geological concepts -- erosion, plate tectonics -- explain how any creature might walk on land that later becomes deeply submerged. The National Research Council suggests students should know these concepts by the eighth grade.

Lewan summarizes matters: "I feel that the evidence right now for the organic theory, for our major economic occurrences [of oil], is overwhelming. And the evidence for inorganic sources right now to explain our current discoveries is unsubstantiated."

"China is drilling for oil in America's backyard!"
Perhaps you've heard some GOP politicians recently claim that China is drilling for oil in Cuban waters near Florida. Give credit where it's due: Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, better known for another kind of prospecting in a Minneapolis airport bathroom, was promoting this notion back in 2006. That April, Craig complained on the Senate floor that China could potentially drill in Cuban waters, then released a statement claiming that soon "it may be possible to see Chinese oil rigs from the shores of the Florida Keys."

Actually, in early 2005, Cuba had announced a deal with the Chinese firm Sinopec, apparently for onshore production, but not offshore drilling. But across the country, people like California congressional candidate Tom McClintock see the oil rigs now. "The vast oil fields off the coast of Florida that American law prevents Americans from developing are now being drained by the Chinese government drilling in Cuban waters," he wrote this month in an Op-Ed.

Such claims are bad spin and bad science. They also ignore the geological realities of oil: Exploration precedes production. That means surveying the terrain and drilling test wells -- generally the slowest kind of drilling, since companies like to study the kind of rock they're finding, the types of microorganisms present, temperature and pressure data, and record everything in geophysical well logs. "When you're drilling an exploratory well, it's a geology experiment," says Philip Budzik of the government's Energy Information Administration. The EIA estimates it would take at least five years to begin production in U.S. waters in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, where drilling is now banned. The process often takes longer. Suffice it to say, China is not drilling for oil off the coast of Florida.

How much oil is there, anyway? The EIA says U.S. waters in the area contain 3.82 billion barrels, half our annual national consumption of 7.6 billion barrels. But it would take decades to extract. If the offshore drilling ban were removed in 2012, the EIA states, it "would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030."

"Alaska has more oil than the Middle East!"
Have you heard that there's enough oil in Alaska to supply the United States for the next two centuries, more than in the entire Middle East, but a government plot is keeping it underground? If so, attribute it to Lindsey Williams, a kind of oil evangelist, who's been making these claims since the 1970s.

Back then, Williams coauthored a book, "The Energy Non Crisis," asserting that vast political machinations were preventing oil companies from exploiting Alaska's riches. Today he's on YouTube, saying Alaska has "possibly the largest oil pool on the face of the earth," which remains untapped "by order of the government." New drilling, Williams suggests, will lower gas prices within 12 months. If you like implausible oil stories, this is for you. One of Williams' YouTube clips has been viewed nearly 500,000 times, and a generic version of the story holds that Alaska has more oil than the Arabian peninsula.

Now consider reality on Alaska's North Slope, the oil area that includes the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It can take two or three years to drill a single exploratory well there, because such drilling is only possible for a few months at a time in the winter, when the permafrost is frozen hard enough to support equipment. Meanwhile, infrastructure can be transported there only by ship, in two or three summer months. To drill permanent wells, oil companies lay down a thick gravel "pad," acres in size, which allows for year-round drilling, by keeping equipment and housing safe from summer thaws and preventing them from melting the permafrost. Pipeline corrosion problems have been extensive. The EIA forecasts that if Congress opened up ANWR, it would take eight to 12 years to even start production.

Does this sound like a place that will produce more oil than the Middle East? Alaska is about the same size as Iran, four-fifths as big as Saudi Arabia, and huge portions of the state consist of mountain ranges where drilling is impossible. The EIA estimates that about 10.4 billion barrels of oil can be recovered from ANWR, just over a year of American consumption. Saudi Arabia alone has about 260 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. The verdict here: Get real.

"North Dakota is the new boomtown!"
Forget Alaska. Lately drilling advocates have been dreaming about a lifetime supply of cheap American oil coming from the Bakken Formation, a layer of rock underneath North Dakota, Montana and southern Canada. In April, Rush Limbaugh cited estimates that "175 billion to 500 billion barrels of recoverable oil" are located in the Bakken, meaning it "is expected to be one of the greatest booms in oil discovery since oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1938."

The truth is different. Companies are drilling in the Bakken, but an April survey from the USGS reported approximately 3.0 to 4.3 billion barrels of oil could be extracted using cutting-edge technology, or about six months of U.S. consumption. Moreover, says Richard Pollastro, a geologist who led the USGS survey, "that's what is technically recoverable, not necessarily what is economically recoverable." Essentially, oil prices would have to increase for companies to extract it all.

The Bakken Formation reminds us that oil is largely found in one place: inside rocks. "People view oil fields as these underground swimming pools of oil, which they are not," says Kaufmann, of the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies. "It's more like an oil-soaked brick." The Bakken Formation consists of a layer of sandstone in between two layers of shale, and the so-called matrix porosity of the rocks -- how easily oil comes out -- fluctuates greatly. "The geologic conditions vary from township to township, county to county," says Pollastro. "You could drill a partial well and have it bring in a half a million barrels of oil, and you can drill one half a mile away and have it bring in 50 barrels of oil." This adds uncertainty to exploration and extraction costs.

That's the catch: Geologists believe there are more than 4.3 billion barrels in the region. But obtaining them would require new drilling technologies, which would demand greater investment. The Bakken hardly heralds a return to cheap oil. Indeed, it suggests America has little cheap oil left. Some discoveries touted today would have produced shrugs decades ago.

"There's a reality out there people don't want to recognize," concludes Kaufmann. "Clearly technology has improved. Oil prices are higher. We deregulated the industry. We've done almost everything. There are a few areas offshore that are closed off. It's not going to make a difference. The sooner people realize that and stop dreaming about energy independence or one huge undiscovered field that's going to solve all our problems, the better off we'll be."

By Peter Dizikes

Peter Dizikes is a science journalist based in Boston.

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