Tracing Oil Reserves to Tiny Origins


"It's not about dinosaurs. . .It's the little guys that matter."

Today, a principal tenet of geology is that a vast majority of the world's oil arose not from lumbering beasts on land but tiny organisms at sea. It holds that blizzards of microscopic life fell into the sunless depths over the ages, producing thick sediments that the planet's inner heat eventually cooked into oil. It is estimated that 95% or more of global oil traces its genesis to the sea.

"It's the dominant theory," said David A. Ross, scientist emeritus at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod. The idea, he added, has been verified as geologists have roamed the globe over the decades and repeatedly found that beds of marine sediments are "a good predictor" of where to discover oil.

The theory also explains offshore drilling—why there is oil in many sea beds, why it is more often near shore than in the abyss, and why, despite the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 crewmen and caused the worst offshore oil spill in American history, oil experts say offshore drilling may increase, rather than cease.

As land reservoirs dry up, oil geologists say, the high costs and potential risks of offshore drilling will seem less onerous and more acceptable.

Of course, this is a matter of politics and economics as much as geology. Just because the oil is there doesn't mean wells must be drilled. Many things could affect the frequency of offshore drilling, like the public interest in and commitment to the development of alternative energy sources. . .but nuclear fission and even fusion.

"It's not about dinosaurs," said Stanford Petroleum Geochemist Kenneth Peters, "Any kind of organic material can contribute, yes. But if you look at the food chain, they're way at the top. It's the little guys that matter."

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