Unnatural Gas

An illustration of typical polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Source: Wikipedia, who got it off NASA, who presumably made it themselvesToday’s amazing piece of investigative science reporting from the Institute for Creation Research (or, as I prefer to call them, their ‘Daily (pseudo)Science Updates’) is an attempt to convince the reader that natural gas doesn’t take millions of years to form. Let’s see if he can manage it…

What is the reason for this latest article? It’s seems somebody pointed out a random article from a random Canadian news site which stated that ‘the refined gas used in barbecue grills “marks the last step in a process that began more than 500 million years ago”‘ in the words of Brian Thomas, the author of the ICR article. Naturally, Mr Thomas got a little offended about this, and decided that it was time to write his own article on the subject, called Did Natural Gas Take Millions of Years to Form?

The Canadian article is just an excuse to talk about how the conditions of the flood can supposedly create fossil fuel deposits in record time. The 500 million year claim is dismissed – “But that’s not so.” – and we continue into the depths of misinformation.

Apparently, “Natural gas can be produced by adding heat and water to brown coal.” This is in fact true, sort of – you can produce what is called coal gas from ‘brown coal’ (lignite), and indeed other types of coal as well. But the results of this is not the same stuff as Natural gas, which consists “primarily of methane, typically with 0–20% higher hydrocarbons” – it is instead a mixture that includes hydrogen and carbon monoxide. In short, not the same stuff as the Natural gas we are familiar with. Mr Thomas continues regardless:

Underground gas and oil, mixed with water, rise from a heated coal deposit until they are either trapped by an overlying rock formation or emerge at the earth’s surface. Converting this coal to liquid or gaseous hydrocarbons does not take much time, nor does the upward migration of such material. So where is the evidence that points to millions of years?

Where did the oil come from? He said first that Natural gas can be produced from heating, but then why didn’t he say oil there as well? Is this some kind of bait and switch? Is he trying to get the reader to admit that gas can be produced in this way, and then slip in oil while you’re not looking? Possibly.

In an exhaustive 2009 book, geologist Andrew Snelling summarized experiments that were performed on coal from Australia’s Gippsland Basin. He wrote, “Brown coals from the onshore part of the basin were heated under conditions that simulated accelerated sedimentary burial conditions.” This produced “liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons from the contained waxes, and leaf, pollen, and spore cuticles, all in a matter of two to five days.” These hydrocarbons were identical to those harvested offshore, where they had been trapped above the coals from which they must have originated.

Who’s Snelling? He is a young earth creationist (obviously), the editor of the Answers Research Journal, a publication of Answers in Genesis, he is the founder of the Journal of Creation, and he has ties with the ICR itself. And he’s a ‘geologist’, a term I use in the loosest sense of the word.

Who’s experiments these are I don’t know, whether he did them himself or just reported on other peoples. The claimed results – “hydrocarbons … identical to those harvested offshore” – are very different to the ones I talked about, which are well known. In the circumstances, if Snelling can make oil and gas in any quantity from mere lignite, he should go seek his fortune, rather than play with his “journals”.

Some coal is being converted to oil and natural gas even now, and it is not taking millions of years.

The first half of that statement I’m pretty sure is true, but I’m not so hot on the second. For starters, Snelling’s experiments required “simulated accelerated sedimentary burial conditions.” Where does that fit in with the modern world? And they don’t exactly have a reference for the “not taking millions of years” thing.

Snelling also pointed to California’s Kettleman Hills, where the natural gas is trapped between Miocene layers and overlying Pleistocene deposits. Both of these are Ice Age deposits that biblical creationists think formed after the Flood roughly 4,500 years ago. But even based on the evolutionary age assignment of 100,000 years for this Pleistocene oil, a 1967 textbook on petroleum concluded, “The time it takes for oil to accumulate into pools may be geologically short, the minimum being measured, possibly, in thousands or even hundreds of years.”

That quote comes from a perfectly legitimate, albeit old, textbook. Some important points: the ‘accumulation’ is only one part of the process, and the thousands of years is the minimum. And considering that the quote is taken via an intermediate source – Snelling’s book – we have no idea of the context. I don’t know either if this is still considered the case nearly 45 years after the textbook was published.

In short, this article doesn’t tell us enough. What made the results of Snelling’s experiments not contain copious quantities of unwanted materials? What are the “accelerated sedimentary burial conditions” that were used? There really isn’t enough to work with. And if, like the opals a few weeks ago, it turns out that it doesn’t take millions of years, that still wouldn’t mean that they had to be only thousands of years old.

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