The Origin of Coal, Oil and Natural Gas: Fossil Fuels or Something Else?

I’m not sure I believe in global warming. I read something written by a scientist arguing that these facts are still open to debate.

I hear comments like this all the time. You can’t put yourself out there as a mainstream believer in the zeitgeist of the scientific community and not receive some arguments from the fringes. As I like to point out, scientific theory is always open to debate. This is why ongoing research and experimentation are always underway. Further information either enhances, modifies, or refutes the current concepts we believe to be the proper understanding of the ways of the universe.

The last time I heard this sentiment was at my book-signing at a local bookstore on Earth Day. It surprised me a little bit because the skeptic admitted to being a grade eight science teacher, and I would hope that people teaching science would be a little more on board with what the majority of today’s scientists consider to be fact rather than adhere to an extremist minority opinion.

The gentleman and I had a long discussion about various aspects of the science and I pointed out that my book was written specifically to help clarify the facts and fill in the gaps for those with an open mind who were keen to understand the current thinking on these topics. Despite our conversation, he decided not to buy the book. (In retrospect, I should have offered him a money-back guarantee if he felt it didn’t answer his questions once he was finished it. Hindsight is always 20/20.)

But he raised one interesting point: he questioned whether oil was even a fossil fuel. He’d read an article about the abiotic synthesis of oil; that is, the formation of the hydrocarbons found in petroleum deposits without them having to come from fossilized plants. If this theory was correct, they could replenish indefinitely from the natural carbon found in the Earth’s crust, essentially a renewable energy source.

I find this a common theme among the more die-hard skeptics: that if they doubt one concept, they will often doubt others. Thus, all of their beliefs will be from the fringe rather than the mainstream. For such extreme perspectives to have any stability, they typically can’t incorporate other well-established facts, but have to use other extreme ideas. So if someone is doubtful of the concepts of global warming and climate change, it helps to doubt the whole concept of fossil fuels having a finite supply. It’s easier to sleep at night. (Although combustion of fossil fuels still adds 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year, regardless of their origin. I never asked him how he reconciles that fact with his beliefs.)

The abiotic synthesis of oil was something I had heard snippets about previously, but admittedly knew very little about. So I decided to explore the subject further to make sure my own “gaps were filled.”

In chapter two of my book, I describe how fossil fuels were formed. Briefly, oil and natural gas were synthesized from the remains of dead plants such as algae and plankton in ancient oceans and seas. These remains would fall to the bottom and form sediments. Over geologic time scales of many millions of years, these sediments became buried deep inside the Earth through the movements of tectonic plates. The high temperatures and pressures deep inside our planet’s crust, along with the anaerobic conditions present during their decomposition, would lead to the formation of the various hydrocarbons found in the oil deposits of today.

Coal is likewise formed from anaerobic decomposition but of terrestrial plants that are buried deep in bogs. They go through a process known as coalification first forming lignite, then bitumen and ultimately anthracite, the purest form of coal.

This biogenic theory of the formation of fossil fuels was first put forward by Georgius Agricola in the 16th century, and the majority of geologists today still consider it to be the most correct theory. Thus, fossil fuels are not a renewable resource because we’re consuming them at a far quicker rate than can ever be replaced.

The abiotic theory for the formation of oil is an alternative theory to the biological origin described above. It suggests that petroleum was formed from deep carbon deposits dating back to the formation of Earth and was first proposed as a hypothesis in the 19th century by Alexander von Humboldt. it received support from some notable scientists including Dimitri Mendeleev who created the current version of the periodic table. The theory was largely forgotten after it was first introduced although gained some popularity in the late 20th century in the Soviet Union. In the English-speaking world, Thomas Gold (1920-2004) was its biggest supporter, and wrote a book in 1998 entitled “The Deep Hot Biosphere” on the topic.

The theory suggests that the biology found on our planet followed the oil deposits and not the other way around. One argument supporters use is that methane has been found on Saturn’s moon Titan, and obviously wouldn’t come from fossilized lifeforms there.

The abiotic theory is controversial and has a number of flaws, however. For one, it doesn’t predict deposits of oil as well as the biogenic theory does. Oil deposits are typically found close to fault lines because that’s where two tectonic plates meet, and ocean sediments can be more easily buried in those regions. Also, oil deposits usually have biomarkers, little telltale signs of life. For the abiotic theory to work, those markers have to be explained somehow; it fills in that hole by suggesting microbes must have been feeding on the petroleum. The biogenic theory easily explains why such evidence of life would be present, however, given that they originated from the remains of once-living plants.

Most of the world’s geologists generally disregard the abiotic theory and it doesn’t have much support in mainstream scientific journals today. Although hydrocarbons with a low carbon:hydrogen ratio such as methane can be produced from abiotic mechanisms—explaining why methane is indeed found on Titan—longer chain hydrocarbons such as octane found in Earth’s oil deposits can only be adequately explained if they are fossil fuels.

When the grade eight science teacher supported his skepticism of global warming by bringing up this abiotic theory of petroleum formation, I realized I wasn’t going to win him over with the facts. I can educate a skeptic who is open-minded and needs some gaps of knowledge to be filled. However, many of those who doubt mainstream science are often suspicious; some even hold onto conspiracy theories, believing people like me have hidden agendas when we try to argue that a change toward renewable energy sources is needed to reduce our carbon footprints. These skeptics will often hold onto any nugget of “science” that can support their position and frequently try to refute the mainstream opinions held by the scientific community.

A tough group to win over indeed, but I appreciated the opportunity to discuss the subject because it led me to learn more about this alternative notion on the origin of fossil fuels. I’m happy to report that further study has only solidified my belief that the mainstream scientific community has once again prevailed. The more ammunition I have to argue against such fallacious arguments, the better I can do my job.

Climate Change: Prolonging the Sneezin' Season

I was signing copies of my book at a local bookstore for Earth Day this past weekend. A lot of people stopped by and a number of interesting discussions arose. I made a lot of great connections with people who share my interest in educating the public about climate change.

One of the folks who stopped by happened to be an old friend of mine from medical school days, Dr. David Fischer. We both went into internal medicine after graduating, but then our paths diverged: I went into cardiology and he pursued allergy and immunology. Eventually we both moved into the same community and I get to run into him from time to time. In addition to a busy clinical practice, Dr. Fischer is also the chair of the Continuing Professional Development committee for his specialty at the national level.

Dr. Fischer provided me with some very interesting information regarding climate change and how it’s affecting his specialty. He connected me to an article published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in November 2011, the same month my book came out. As a cardiologist I had already explored how global warming is affecting cardiovascular disease and wrote a guest blog on the subject for the David Suzuki Foundation about it. But this branch of medicine and how it was being affected was news to me, although certainly not surprising once I read the article.

In allergy medicine, many of the ailments affecting the population are from airborne allergens such as pollen, and this branch of study is known as aerobiology. Rising greenhouse gas emissions—particularly carbon dioxide—are contributing to changing aerobiology in two distinct ways:

1. the indirect effect of global warming which contributes to changes in rainfall and weather phenomena have an impact on plant biology; and
2. the direct effect of carbon dioxide-induced stimulation of increased photosynthesis and plant growth.

Here are some of the changes affecting patients with allergies that are aggravated by climate change:

1. Many tree species are flowering earlier in the spring than in previous years, prolonging that allergy season. Some pollen initiation is as much as four weeks ahead of what it once was (e.g. the Quercus species), with increases in pollen levels by up to 50 percent.

2. Many species of weeds and grasses are likewise starting their summer seasons earlier than in the past.

3. Ragweed, the most notorious and best studied of the airborne allergens has always been known to be a problem affecting people allergic to it from August 15 to the first frost. Global warming has prolonged that season as well. Since 1995, the ragweed season has become measurably longer, especially the farther north you go. Beyond fifty degrees latitude the season has increased by more than three weeks. (See graph)

It’s not surprising that a branch of medicine that is so affected by living species such as trees, grasses and weeds will be impacted by climate change. These changes occur both temporally as described above with longer allergy seasons, but also spatially—that is, certain species thriving in environments that previously weren’t so hospitable for them in the past but are now because of climate change.

The authors of the JACI article point out that this isn’t concrete evidence proving that climate change is the sole culprit for changes in allergy seasons, but the observations certainly fit with what the science and the observed trends would predict. That fact that such clear changes have been noted in less than two decades is concerning indeed.

I imagine the pharmaceutical companies who manufacture allergy medications might be happy about these findings, but I find these statistics alarming. It’s fair to say that they’re certainly nothing to sneeze at.

Earth Day—Sunday, April 22

The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.”
― Gaylord Nelson, principal founder of Earth Day

Earth Day first began on April 22, 1970. Forty-two years later, it still serves its purpose well: to promote awareness and appreciation of Earth’s natural environment. Although it originated in the United States, it is now celebrated in more than 175 countries around the world.

Less than a month ago, we celebrated Earth Hour. That event was designed to encourage everyone to turn off the lights for one hour in the name of conserving energy. Earth Day has a much broader mandate. Although it goes without saying that conserving energy is one way to show appreciation for the environment, there is much more to consider than simply minimizing energy wastage. The environment is our world. How we alter it will have a lasting impact and we can never forget that. As the Scottish-born American naturalist and author John Muir once said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

I’d like you to consider what you’ll do to honour Earth Day. Think of it as our planet’s birthday. Will you give a significant gift, like putting your time and energy into something to help improve our planet in some way? Will you make a tiny gesture, because it’s really just the thought that counts? (For people that might work, but for the planet—not so much.) Or will you conveniently let it slip by without making any effort to do something about it?

In Canada, there are a number of events taking place. One example is at the Toronto Zoo, where they are hosting a Party for the Planet on both Saturday April 21 and Sunday April 22, from 10-4 p.m. EDT. Reconnecting with our furry and feathered friends who share this planet with us is an excellent way to spend the day. You can find out about other ways Canada is addressing Earth Day here.

In the US Capitol of Washington, DC, there will be an event held on April 22nd from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. EDT at the National Mall entitled “Mobilize the Earth.” In addition to musical entertainment, there will be speakers, celebrities, education and renewable energy demonstrations, all in the name of promoting awareness and change.

If you don’t live near Toronto or Washington, DC, I encourage you to explore what local happenings might be closer to home for you to consider. For myself, my family and I will be starting Sunday, April 22nd with a hike. Our backyard is 4.5 acres of untouched forest which then connects to Ministry of Natural Resources land. Other than a few foot paths that have been created in years past, it is mostly completely natural and a great way to appreciate the beauty of the environment.

Then, from 1-4 p.m. EDT, I will be doing an Earth Day book-signing for “Comprehending the Climate Crisis” at  the Chapters Bookstore in Barrie, Ontario. Although I hope to sell a few books, I care most about discussing environmental issues with the customers there, and encouraging them to think about ways to protect and preserve our world. Sadly, the environment is not as much of a renewable resource as many would like, and every time we harm our planet—whether in the atmosphere, the geoshpere, the hydrosphere, or the biosphere—we need to think about the repercussions.

I wish you all a happy and healthy Earth Day, both for you and for our planet. Please do what you can to make a difference.

Barcelona—a City that's Green at Heart

Example is leadership.” —Albert Schweitzer

I’m just back from a meeting I attended in Barcelona, Spain, a city of 1.6 million inhabitants. The sessions kept me rather busy but I did my best to take in what little I could of this beautiful city on the Mediterranean. And as is always the case for me now when I travel, I wanted to learn what I could about how this capital of Catalonia was dealing with green energy.

I already knew about Spain’s excellent sun exposure and its solar energy initiatives. In my book, I described the Planta Solar 10, a tower using concentrated solar thermal technology near Seville which generates 11 megawatts of electricity, and the Olmedilla Photovoltaic Park, the world’s largest solar farm. But I wanted to use this opportunity to see what was being done on the local level in Barcelona itself.

My hotel was the AC Barcelona, located at Forum Park. From my hotel window which had a view of the Mediterranean Sea, I could see something that looked very much like a large solar panel but couldn’t be certain. As I explored the area on foot, I found out that’s exactly what it is: the Barcelona Solar Array located on the Forum Esplanade has a surface area of 10,500 square metres and is the largest of its kind in Europe. It generates electricity for the public sector, reducing the city’s emissions by 440 metric tonnes, about 485 US tons. The array uses silicon monocrystals, faces south and is angled at 35 degrees to maximize daytime exposure.

There are also solar arrays on the City Hall. In fact, since 2000 Barcelona has mandated that all new buildings—as well as older ones undergoing major renovations—have to install solar energy sources to help heat most of their hot water. Their goal is to derive 60 percent of their energy that way. Rather than simply encouraging the population to do this, Barcelona decided to regulate it and in the twelve years since, 20 other Spanish towns and cities have done likewise. The European Union has even awarded Barcelona a prize for this initiative.

The city helped to prevent a backlash from taking place when the legislation took effect by providing subsidies for the development of new technologies, tools to measure and control energy consumption, and information campaigns for the public. The Barcelona Local Energy Agency has the purpose of promoting a sustainable attitude toward both the environment and energy consumption.

In the convention centre where the sessions were being held, I found more green initiatives than I have ever seen at a conference. The meeting planners were the CCIB, the Centre Convencions Internacional Barcelona, and they take going green very seriously. Most times I’m happy if there are separate bins for trash and recyclables. This group provides six, all colour-coded so you can be sure to dispose of items properly: blue—paper, light yellow—plastic, green—glass, orange—organic, dark yellow—metal and brown—waste. The CCIB also purchases carbon offsets to negate its own emissions, and offers its clients a carbon footprint calculator, inviting them to do the same for the meetings they’re helping to organize.

The icing on the cake came when I sat down to the meeting. At each seat, they provided the materials for the sessions themselves and a pen to take notes. What I was excited to find out was that the pen was biodegradable: the components of the pen including the ink can be disposed of in any home compost! They are made using renewable materials from nature rather than plastic. The grip and refill aren’t yet able to be made out of renewable resources so they still need to be thrown in the trash, but the rest of the pen is ready for the compost when you’re done with it. I was very happy to learn about these green initiatives.

I love seeing how other municipalities approach the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. It provides a number of things that do my heart good:

  1. it proves that there are communities out there that are convinced of the importance of making changes
  2. It offers many great ideas that can be adopted elsewhere
  3. It allows me to participate in green activities as part of my daily living beyond my own initiatives.

I can only hope that other communities will look to the examples set in place by cities like Barcelona. If a city older than Rome can do it, so can we!

The Titanic 100 Years Later: Could it Happen Today?


I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern ship building has gone beyond that.
-Captain Smith, Commander of Titanic

Like many people, I’m fascinated with the Titanic. I knew a lot about it long before James Cameron’s record-breaking film came out, and have continued to study its lore ever since. I’ve attended two exhibits, have visited cemeteries in Halifax where victims are buried, and have collected pieces of coal retrieved from the ocean floor where the ship remains. I also have a gorgeous and very detailed model of it in my home office signed by Millvina Dean, the last survivor from the unsinkable ship—she was a nine-week old passenger at the time—and who died in 2009 at the age of 97.

I find myself thinking a lot about the great ship as the 100th anniversary of the tragedy approaches. Indeed, the day I’m posting this blog is the anniversary of the day the ship set sail on her maiden voyage, leaving Southampton before heading to Cherbourg, France and then Queenstown in Ireland for some last passengers to be picked up, and then finally off to New York City.

Such a human tragedy can’t help but make people think about so many things, and on so many different levels: class differences in society, the lack of enough lifeboats, and the misplaced belief that anything manmade can be infallible. But one interesting aspect of the entire event was the cause of the tragedy. In fact, a number of factors contributed together to lead to the fateful event. A moonless night made the visibility of icebergs poor, and a quiet night for weather—the sea was “like a mill pond” as Captain Edward Smith described it—prevented any wake around icebergs which could be more easily spotted. Both of these played a part in the unfortunate collision.

Fans of Titanic history tend to know those factors I describe above, but few people are aware that there’s another factor with respect to weather that contributed: the winter of 1911-1912 was unusually cold. The very frosty winter that year allowed northern Atlantic icebergs to last much longer into the spring and travel much farther south before melting than usual. A cold spell through much of the US and Canada between December 2011 and February 2012, therefore, played a key part in creating the circumstances which led to the famous accident. It turns out it was one of the coldest winters on record.

I only raise this point, as we look back this week on a such a significant chapter of our humanity’s history, because it makes me realize how much things have changed in a century. Navigation equipment with GPS tracking as well as instantaneous communications all over the planet have made a substantial difference to sea travel—although the recent mishap with the Costa Concordia proves that disasters at sea are still not foolproof.

But I realize another aspect of our civilization’s progress makes a similar tragedy less likely today: our planet’s climate change with constant record-breaking temperatures minimizes the chance of icebergs remaining large enough at this time of year on the Titanic’s travel route to cause such damage. A cruise ship leaving Southamptom on April 10, 2012 and then heading to New York City would have a tough time hitting such a large iceberg as far south as 41° 46′ N and 50° 14′ W. (It will be interesting to see if any of the various Titanic memorial cruises that passengers are currently aboard will see any icebergs that would be comparable in size to the one that led to 1514 people losing their lives on April 14, 1912; in other words, less than a third of those on board the original Titianic surviving the disaster.

It’s an interesting perspective on this important anniversary: that were the climate of today present back then, it’s quite likely that this fascinating part of our world’s history might never have happened.