Virtually all oil and natural gas reservoirs are associated with salt domes or similar “piercement structures”, such as mud volcanoes and shale diapirs (not diaper, diapir!). A salt dome occurs when unbelievably thick layers of sea salts like sodium chloride (halite) and calcium sulfate (gypsum) are rapidly smothered by unbelievably thick layers of more dense sediments. Add a little shaking from tectonic activity, and the salt finds a gap and oozes its way to the surface. Below is a U. S. Geological Survey seismic image of a mud diapir off the California coast:
Seismic image of a mud diapir. Notice how the mud has pushed through layers above it.
In 2005, deep sea researchers Martin Hovland, Ian Macdonald, and others discovered what they described as an asphalt volcano in the Gulf of Mexico:
Diagram of an asphalt volcano from martinhovland.com 1) the channel formed through the salt dome (2). 3-6 are various hydrocarbon products
Since the discovery of the Chapopte asphalt volcanoes, other asphalt volcanoes have been discovered, and while actual samples have not been collected, it sure looks like there is an asphalt volcano on Mars!
Possible asphalt volcanism on Mars. If you have Google Earth on your computer, select "Mars", then "fly to" Hebes Chasma, and you can see it.
Just like the majority of petroleum discoveries man has made, the asphalt volcanoes are associated with salt domes. But why is that? Is there a relationship between the formation of all that salt and all that oil and gas? Well, a theory being proposed by Martin Hovland suggests that both the salt and the oil are being generated next to magmatic heat engines:
Heat from the magma chamber generates warm water, which rises. Cold water rushes in through cracks in the sediments to replace this water. In the process, it reacts with hot rocks, forming petroleum products. It also turns into a supercritical fluid, which causes the sea salts to precipitate out (turn to solid).
Yes, you read the caption above correctly, water + rock + heat = oil! Actually, NOAA has studied it quite a bit at a place called Lost City in the Atlantic:
NOAA image of Lost City, where researchers found clues about serpentinization.
The reaction is usually between a rock called olivine, water, and carbon dioxide. Here is one of many complex reactions referred to as serpentinization:
one of many possible reactions
Below is a graph showing the relationship of trace metals from Brazilian crude oil compared to trace metals in serpentinized rock from the mantle. The research by Peter Szatmari and others was published in 2010 in an online textbook (click here):
Trace metals in Brazilian oil compared to their amounts in serpentinized mantle. Research by Peter Szatmari and others (see above for link to their research)
One conclusion from the graph above is that most of the crude oil in Brazil, and everywhere else (including Mars!) was formed by serpentinization that is still going on today. Oil is not a “fossil fuel”. It was probably not formed by dead dinosaurs, flamingoes, and algae dying and slowly decomposing on the ocean floor over millions of years. And even if dead plants and animals were the source, they would have to be buried rapidly, all over the world, since oil is found all over the world.
Think about what this means. If we can develop drilling techniques that can handle even more high temperature, high pressure (HTHP) situations than they do right now, we just may find more oil and gas than we could ever use! Also, notice that in the reaction shown above, carbon dioxide (CO2) is a reactant, which means that for those who believe excess carbon dioxide is heating the earth, all you need to do is find a way to pump it down to one of these undersea heat engines, and carbon dioxide will be consumed (sequestered). Researchers are already trying to figure out how to do this. And while we are on the subject of greenhouse gases, did you know that water is a much worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide? Think about that while you are thinking about how oil and gas may not be as “evil” as some people try to make them seem.
We should be VERY glad that the formation of oil-trapping piercement structures has slowed down today from a more rapid rate in the past. The tectonic activity (earthquakes) involved as lower density salts, gases, and oils pushed through sediments all over the world must have been tremendous. I would speculate that most of this was formed rapidly during the global cataclysm described in Genesis, and most of the piercement structures moved upward during this time, before sediments had a chance to do much compacting and lithifying (turning to rock). Most of these heat engines have cooled considerably, but they do still carry out the process of serpentinization, and with the right tools, it is something we could manipulate.
If there is really a whole lot more oil and gas than we are led to believe by major media outlets and many government leaders, this also means that gasoline prices should drop once we learn how to get to more of this oil. It also means that America’s current desires to make ethanol from corn could be a waste of time. If you are a person who thinks we should halt all oil drilling to “save the planet”, I encourage you to think again. Think instead about encouraging better and safer technology to extract oil and gas from deeper, hotter sections of salt domes in places like the Gulf of Mexico. We don’t need to “save the planet”, we need to manage the planet wisely, and we all need to think harder about how to do that.