Can Young-Earth Creationists Find Oil?

Active vs. Passive Strategies for Combatting YEC

If you haven’t read Dana Hunter’s piece in Scientific American on strategies for combatting Young-Earth Creationism (YEC) in the public sphere, then I highly suggest you take a couple minutes to do so. In a nutshell, Hunter observes that engaging these ideas defensively from behind the scenes (as I have mainly done) is not sufficient. Instead, we must actively demand—even in the classroom—the level of extraordinary evidence that is required by claims intrinsic to the young-Earth paradigm.

While the tone of Hunter’s article is unnecessarily harsh, in my opinion, making it somewhat counterproductive to her stated purpose, I tend to agree with the main position she lays out: organizations like Answers in Genesis ought to be held to the same standards as the rest of us when it comes to establishing scientific paradigms. Of course, the other side of that coin is that if they make the necessary effort to meet those standards, then we should respectfully take their proposals seriously, even if they are found to be flawed in the end.

According to his recent blog post, however, Ken Ham read the piece as well, apparently while shaking his head. He seems to think that Hunter is misguided for not understanding properly the difference between observational and historical science or the role of hermeneutics in the latter. While Hunter may not have earned her degrees in geology, she grasps the subject rather well and shows no signs of misunderstanding scientific methodologies. Conversely, as we’ve seen repeatedly in the past, Ken Ham presents an oversimplistic and false dichotomy between experimental science and its application to the past, present, and future.

At the end of the day, we need to ask why Ham insists on dividing scientific methodologies in a way that no real scientist does. In my opinion, Ham is employing a powerful polemical rhetoric. By driving a wedge between the kind of science that brings present comfort (as I type this blog on a fancy computer) and the kind of science that reconstructs the past and forecasts the future, Ham can invoke doubt upon the latter without having to do the hard work of engaging it critically.

Petroleum Exploration in a Young World?

Much more could be said about Ham’s critique, but I want to focus on the last section, in which he quotes Dr. Andrew Snelling to assert that one can be a successful geologist while maintaining a young-Earth worldview. The claim that creationists can be effective scientists was central to the debate last year with Bill Nye, where Ken Ham showcased a number of creationists that actively contribute to the engineering and medical industries.

In general, I actually agree with Ham’s position here, because accepting the tenets of YEC is often inconsequential to how one practices science in unrelated fields. Not so in geology, and in this case, he gets very specific and makes a grave error. Dr. Snelling writes:

Successful oil…exploration and discoveries do not depend on believing the strata are millions of years old. In fact, the supposed ages are irrelevant, both to the exploration techniques used and to successful discoveries. (emphasis mine)

Contrary to Snelling’s claim, the actual age of geologic formations—millions to billions of years—is very important to modeling whether or not they could have produced usable oil and gas, for the same reason that you set a timer on the oven. To understand how geologists use the conventional timescale to find oil and gas, you need only know how to cook! And I don’t mean a top chef, just someone that can turn raw food into cooked food.

Let’s get baking!

Image and recipe from Wilton.com.

Imagine now that we have a large mixing bowl full of your typical cake batter: eggs, flour, milk, butter, and sugar, give or take. These ingredients are comprised of a suite of organic molecules like proteins, fats, and sugars—i.e. various combinations of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen. So long as the batter is raw, the consistency is that of a liquid, but upon baking it, we should be able to turn the mixture into a fluffy cake that is essentially solid. To accomplish this, we just need to add heat…right?

Not exactly, so let’s run a couple of experiments to figure out why. In the first case, simply pour your batter into a pan and bake it for 30 minutes in an oven that is preheated to 150°F (66 °C). Next, try the same cooking time at 350°F (177 °C) and again at 500°F (260 °C). What are the results?

Depending on how you mixed the ingredients, the second trial should produce a recognizable and probably edible cake. But in the first case, the batter should still be gooey and raw; in the third case, it will be burnt black and rock solid. What happened?

When heat is added to organic molecules, certain chemical reactions become spontaneous. Proteins begin to denature, long-chain carbon compounds break down, and water (H20) is generally lost from molecules that contain hydrogen and oxygen. Specifically, it is the denaturation of proteins that turns your liquid batter into a more rigid structure, while dehydration concentrates carbon and turns the mixture black. To understand dehydration, let’s reduce that suite of organic molecules to a very simplified chemical formula (used often in geology): CH2O. If we add enough heat to break the C-O bond and evaporate water, then we are left with only carbon. Therefore, any food cooked long enough and hot enough will eventually produce only charcoal.

In the first trial, it seems, the batter never reached a high enough temperature for these reactions to complete; in the third trial, there were too many! Thus we all know form experience that the results of our cooking depend strongly on the chosen temperature and time. Consider also the various ways to make a roast: we can cook the meat for a short time at high temperature, for a long time at low temperature, or choose some option in between. Why? Because the rate of chemical reactions is temperature dependent, and for every ~10°C increase in temperature, the reaction rate doubles.

How long have our rocks been cooking?

This flexibility in cooking reflects a basic principle in petroleum geology called the Time-Temperature Index (TTI). The deposition of organic matter in sedimentary layers is much like pouring a raw cake batter into a pan. As those sediments are buried deeper, the temperature naturally increases, due to what’s called the geothermal gradient (heat flows from the Earth’s center to its surface, so temperature increases with depth). Once the temperature becomes high enough, those same chemical reactions that turned our batter into cake can also turn raw organic matter into a suite of energy-rich hydrocarbons (oil and gas). But the actual cooking time depends on the absolute temperature to which those molecules are exposed.

In other words, the Earth’s subsurface works like a giant oven—in fact, this terminology is frequently used by petroleum geologists. As with cooking in our homes, the end result depends on three factors: the original recipe, time, and temperature. When geologists search for oil/gas, they try to constrain those variables as best they can.

To determine the ‘recipe’, samples of potential source rocks are analyzed to describe the ingredients (e.g. marine algae versus terrestrial vegetation). Using modern experiments, in which raw organic matter is converted to oil/gas in a laboratory, we can determine the reaction rate for each recipe (i.e. the ideal time-temperature index to produce energy-efficient hydrocarbons). While it is true, we can make oil/gas in a matter of hours to days, the temperatures required to do so (>750°F/400°C) are much higher that we’d find in natural sedimentary basins. Therefore, what takes days in a lab will take thousands to millions of years underground.

To estimate the time and temperature, geologists carefully study the history of the sedimentary basin: how quickly were the sediments buried, and to what kind of temperatures were they exposed? If geologists can answer these questions, then they can successfully predict where oil/gas might be found. Additionally, they can predict where the oven was too hot (so that no usable hydrocarbons are left), not hot enough (so that the mixture is still ‘raw’), or simply where too little or too much time has elapsed since the sediments were put into the oven.

Every major oil company employs kinetic models in their search for hydrocarbons, based on the techniques that I have described above. Since these models assume that we correctly know the age of rocks and their temperature history, petroleum exploration provides us with millions of ongoing scientific tests, which collectively could disprove the conventional geologic timescale and confirm the young-Earth paradigm.

Of course, they don’t.

Instead, the widespread success of oil and gas exploration is perhaps the greatest testament to the accuracy of our age estimates. If the geologic column were created within the past 6,000 years, then no oil or gas should be found today, for the same reason you can’t make a medium-rare pot roast in only 30 seconds. By asserting that the age of rocks is somehow irrelevant to exploration techniques, Dr. Snelling has essentially told every cook to throw out their timers. But I think you all know better than this, and for that matter, so does Andrew Snelling.

Featured image by Joshua Delaughter, via Flickr creative commons.

8 responses to “Can Young-Earth Creationists Find Oil?

  1. Dear Age of Rocks – greatly appreciate your blog. Can you tell us the results when these buried organic regions are “under-cooked” and “over-cooked”. What do geologists find in these cases and are they still usable in any way?

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    • Thanks Ron, good question. These regions are described as ‘immature’ and ‘postmature’, respectively. In the former, the organic matter simply hasn’t been converted to something like crude oil, which we can use as a fuel source. Also, the organic matter will still be solid and locked up in the source rock, as opposed to being a recoverable liquid.

      As the rock approaches being ‘over-cooked’ in terms of oil, it does produce natural gas in great quantities. But if the process goes on too long, even the gas will be gone. In certain cases, ‘postmature’ rocks can be useful, just not as crude oil sources. From these, we can sometimes recover what’s called “heavy oil” or even asphalt, both of which have specialized uses.

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  2. I suppose one response from the YEC side could be that instead of time, it was a higher level of heat/pressure that caused oil and gas to form. My guess, though, would be that you will say that there would be certain signs of such high levels of heat/pressure that simply aren’t there. Or perhaps that the levels of heat/pressure necessary would be too high to be physically possible in the given conditions.

    The YEC view, in order to use the argument I just proposed, would have to say that replacing greater time with greater heat/pressure would result in the same results–finding oil and gas in the same places. Could this be the case, or would such a coincident set of results be unlikely in such a scenario?

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    • Hi Mark, it is true, in theory, that higher temperatures could have accelerated oil generation, just as they do today in the laboratory. But you’ve also anticipated correctly the response: if temperature were so much higher, where is the evidence for that?

      If these sedimentary rock layers were once at a much higher temperature (so that oil could be produced within ~5,000 years), then they will still be at approximately the same temperature, because it takes a very long time for heat to flow out of the rock to the surface of the Earth (the same way it takes a long time for a boiling pot of water to cool off even after you turn off the flame). But every time we drill a well into the ground, we also measure the temperature, and we simply don’t find those high temperatures anywhere.

      So the only way this explanation could be plausible is with ‘divine warming’ of the rocks, until oil/gas are produced, followed by ‘divine cooling’ of the rocks, to make it seem as though the process took millions of years. But I don’t think this should be seriously entertained.:)

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  3. Hi. You say, “Therefore, what takes days in a lab will take thousands to millions of years underground.” – this huge age range seems to contradict your whole thesis (Rock must be x my). You seem to be saying that oil depends on depth & thickness of strata, not just age.

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    • Hello Brian. I give a large age range for illustrative purposes only, because there are still two variables at play: time and temperature. The higher the temperature, the shorter the time, and the temperature of individual sedimentary layers does vary quite a bit:

      https://ageofrocks.org/2014/09/08/the-sediments-of-the-earth-are-they-old/

      So yes, oil generation does depend on depth, in the sense that more deeply buried rocks experience higher temperatures. I apologize if that were unclear. In any case, once the temperature of the rock is constrained, then only one variable remains: time. This allows us to say, “Yes, the rock must be x my.”

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  4. The one creationist argument I have heard to counter the rational argument is that the radioactive clock (decay) is not constant. As such all creationists need to do is tweak the values to obtain the desired age for a young Earth. That been said, this is just their theory as they have never demonstrated that radioactive decay rate changes with time. Seems they don’t like it when I ask them to demonstrate their theory is correct either.

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  5. Just seen:
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/leavingfundamentalism/2015/03/11/ok-creationists-fine-me-some-new-oil-reserves/

    I’m assuming that YECs could not find oil simply by admitting “these rock layers are older than these” without admitting the real ages derived via scientific measurements of radioactive decay of igneous rocks thought to be of similar age to sedimentary rocks or their fossils (I forget whether you covered that aspect above but will re-read to check).

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