I am old enough to remember the days when gasoline sold for $.26 a gallon.
But, even at today’s high prices, gasoline is a bargain compared to what it could cost if it were not so easily and abundantly accessible. Recent research by geologists and physicists reveals that humans are living at the best possible time in Earth’s history for harvesting petroleum-a resource that helped launch and sustain advanced civilization. Without a series of just-right geophysical events and conditions, there would be no complaining about pump prices, because there would be little or no fossil fuel to complain about.
To appreciate this miracle of fuel’s availability to humanity one needs to understand how petroleum forms and is stored in the earth. First, sedimentation and plate tectonics bury organic material. This buried organic matter is transformed by heat, pressure, and time into kerogen (high-molecular-weight tars). With yet more time and heat a significant portion of the kerogen is converted into petroleum.1 Through still more time, however, microbial activity works to degrade petroleum into methane (natural gas).2
Certain kinds of organisms are much more likely upon death and burial to be transformed into kerogen than others. The most efficient kerogen producers were the swarms of small-body-size animals that inhabited large shallow seas soon after the Cambrian explosion (so named because 50-80% of animal phyla “exploded” onto the scene 543 million years ago). If the Creator’s goal is to provide humanity with the richest possible reserves of fossil hydrocarbons, a fixed period of time must transpire between the epoch when efficient kerogen producers were dominant on Earth (about 500 mya) and the appearance of human beings (some tens of thousands of years ago). With too little time, not enough petroleum will be produced. With too much time, too much of the petroleum will be degraded into methane.
There is more to the production of fossil hydrocarbon reserves than just the burial of particular organisms and their progressive conversion into kerogens and petroleum. Certain sedimentation processes are needed to lay down the porous rocks that will become reservoirs. Later, these rocks must be overlaid with fine-grained rock with low permeability (sealer rocks). Finally, certain tectonic forces cause appropriate caps under which fossil hydrocarbons can collect.3
Long years of specific sedimentary and tectonic processes are required to produce appropriate reservoir structures for collecting and storing fossil hydrocarbons. And yet too much time will lead to the destruction of the reservoirs. Additional tectonic and erosion processes eventually cause the reservoirs to leak. If too much time had transpired before humans came on the scene the fossil hydrocarbon reservoirs would have emptied, and the resources with which human beings were able to launch an industrial and scientific revolution would have been missing or insufficient.
Both methane and kerogen play significant roles in sustaining modern civilization and technology, but their importance pales in comparison to petroleum, particularly in the plastics industries. While human technology is now sufficiently advanced to consider and develop ways to get by without petroleum, it seems doubtful that such technology would have arisen without access to large amounts of petroleum to begin with.
Human beings indeed arrived at the optimal “fossil-hydrocarbon moment.” Such optimized timing raises reasonable doubt about any naturalistic model for life and humanity, but aligns perfectly with what a biblical creation model would predict.
- J. S. Seewald, “Organic-Inorganic Interactions in Petroleum-Producing Sedimentary Basins,” Nature 426 (2003): 327-33.
- I. M. Head, D. M. Jones, and S. R. Larter, “Biological Activity in the Deep Subsurface and the Origin of Heavy Oil,” Nature 426 (2003): 344-52.
- N. White, M. Thompson, and T. Barwise, “Understanding the Thermal Evolution of Deep-Water Continental Margins,” Nature 426 (2003): 334-43.