A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How many dinosaurs did it take to make a barrel of oil?

March 21, 1986

Dear Cecil:

Has anyone and is it possible to compute how many barrels of petroleum are produced by one dinosaur, or how many dinosaurs to make one barrel? Follow me?

Cecil replies:

Barely, but let's deal with one thing at a time. You obviously haven't been keeping up with the work of maverick scientist Thomas Gold. In his book Power from the Earth: Deep Earth Gas, Energy for the Future, Gold presents the startling hypothesis that oil and natural gas may not be fossil fuels after all. In other words, oil and gas may not derive from the decaying remains of prehistoric critters such as dinosaurs, as scientists have long thought, but rather are the result of inorganic joy juice bubbling up from deep in the earth's crust. If true, there's probably a lot more of the stuff around than was previously believed in particular, a lot more natural gas. That means good-bye energy crisis, sayonara OPEC, and toodaloo to nukes, air pollution (natural gas burns very cleanly), acid rain, the greenhouse effect, and just about every modern ill except herpes and ho-hum mouth.

Gold's theory faces many obstacles, not the least of which is the almost universal scorn of the petroleum research community. (The Soviets are an exception.) But he presents some interesting evidence. He notes that the oil found in regions such as the Middle East is remarkably uniform, despite great variety in the age and condition of the rock that holds it, suggesting a common source. Gold believes this source is a crack or cracks in the earth's mantle that extends down hundreds of miles, tapping the primordial hydrocarbons from which the planet was made. Gold believes these deep hydrocarbon reserves may be the cause of volcanoes and perhaps even earthquakes. A well now being drilled in Sweden's Siljan Ring will test this theory. It's expected to go down three to five miles, below the level at which fossils are found. If oil or, more likely, natural gas is discovered in quantity, it'll be strong support for Gold's thesis.

Now, everybody admits that at least some oil is biological in origin. But even in the traditional view, oil doesn't come just from dead dinosaurs, but from whole swampfuls of animal and plant life that got buried and formed the tarlike gunk called kerogen that is the precursor of petroleum. So your question about how many brontos per barrel can't be intelligently answered. As for whether it could be intelligently asked, well, that you could work on.

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