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The debate over oil’s origin has been going on since the 19th century. From the start, there were those who contended that oil is primordial—that it dates back to Earth’s origin—or that it is made through an inorganic process, while others argued that it was produced from the decay of living organisms (primarily oceanic plankton) that proliferated millions of years ago during relatively brief periods of global warming and were buried under ocean sediment under fortuitous circumstances.
During the latter half of the 20th century, with advances in geophysics and geochemistry, the vast majority of scientists lined up on the side of the biotic theory. A small group of mostly Russian scientists—but including a tiny handful Western scientists, among them the late Cornell University physicist Thomas Gold—have held out for an abiotic (also called abiogenic or inorganic) theory. While some of the Russians appear to regard Gold as a plagiarist of their ideas, the latter’s book The Deep Hot Biosphere (1998) stirred considerable controversy among the public on the questions of where oil comes from and how much of it there is. Gold argued that hydrocarbons existed at the time of the solar system’s formation, and are known to be abundant on other planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and some of their moons) where no life is presumed to have flourished in the past.
The abiotic theory holds that there must therefore be nearly limitless pools of liquid primordial hydrocarbons at great depths on Earth, pools that slowly replenish the reservoirs that conventional oil drillers tap.