The Rapid Formation of Petroleum

Author: Stephen Caesar
Subject: Geology
Date:  8/6/2005

Most geologists believe that the world’s supply of petrochemicals such as oil and natural gas comes from the decay of ancient plant and animal matter over the course of millions of years (O’Donnell 2005: 10). Those who adhere to a Genesis-centered view of origins, on the other hand, have maintained that petroleum was formed rapidly during a high-pressure, catastrophic event. Recent research suggests that the latter group may be correct.

Dudley Herschbach, research professor of science at Harvard and recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry, published an article in the autumn 2004 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describing how researchers created methane (one of the most common petrochemicals) rapidly under high-pressure conditions. The scientists combined three abiotic (non-living) materials—water, limestone, and iron oxide—and then crushed them together “with the same intense pressure found deep below the earth’s surface. This process created methane (CH4), the major component of natural gas,” reported Harvard Magazine (Ibid. 10-11).

Prof. Herschbach actually revived an earlier theory that had fallen out of favor. For quite some time, Russian and Ukrainian geologists had maintained that reactions of water with other abiotic compounds deep below the surface of the earth produce petroleum, which then bubbles up toward the surface of the planet. Mainstream science rejected this theory, since petroleum contains organic matter, a fact which currently leads scientists to believe that petroleum derives from once-living matter. However, Cornell astrophysicist Thomas Gold, who embraced the Russian/Ukrainian theory in a book titled The Deep, Hot Biosphere, proposed that the organic matter found in petroleum is actually waste matter from microbes that feed on the petrochemicals as they head upward to the earth’s surface (Ibid. 11).

The scientific world ignored the book, but not Herschbach, who contacted Dr. Russell Hemley, a Harvard Ph.D. who now works at the Geophysical Laboratory at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC, and suggested that the two of them conduct the methane experiment. They were joined by Henry Scott of Indiana University and other scientists, and together they created the same conditions found 140 miles below the earth’s surface. At this depth, pressures mount to more than 50,000 times those at sea level. According to Herschbach, “The experiment showed it’s easy to make methane” (Ibid.).

Harvard Magazine reported: “The new findings may serve to corroborate other evidence, cited by Gold, that some of the earth’s reservoirs of oil appear to refill as they’re pumped out, suggesting that petroleum may be continually generated” (Ibid.). With results like that, it is no wonder that the magazine subtitled its article “Hydrocarbon Heresy.”



O’Donnell, E. 2005. “Rocks into Gas.” Harvard Magazine 107, no. 4.


Stephen Caesar holds his master’s degree in anthropology/archaeology from Harvard. He is a staff member at Associates for Biblical Research and the author of the e-book The Bible Encounters Modern Science, available at


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