[Note: I made a comment on a blog thread at Perry Marshall’s website, www.cosmicfingerprints.com. Perry is the author of Evolution 2.0: Breaking the Deadlock Between Darwin and Design. He invited me to expand on my remarks relative to oil & gas exploration as applied earth science & earth history. This is a draft of my submission. SM]
During my 39-year petroleum engineering career, I’ve worked alongside hundreds of geologists and geophysicists, most of whom hold advanced degrees; for most of them, finding new and profitable places to drill is Job #1. An engineer’s job is evaluating them and then making them happen.
Geologic science provides a framework for understanding where petroleum accumulations exist. A skilled geoscientist applies the science, interpreting the data accumulated from thousands of wells in a search for as-yet undiscovered accumulations. The working geologist’s goal is not to publish a paper or to gain professional recognition. His/her goal is to find oil and gas. Feedback is immediate and tangible. For a talented geologist, it can be financially rewarding, too.
A company will risk several million dollars drilling a single new well. Science can’t eliminate the chance of a dry hole, but good science can make the risk manageable.
If tea leaves worked, we would read tea leaves. If dowsing worked, we would dowse. They don’t. Conventional Old Earth geology is the best model for finding oil and gas. Every well drilled is a multi-million dollar bet on that proposition.
In this post I’ll try to explain why.
Geologically speaking, the Gulf Coast is the youngest oil and gas producing basin in North America. Its complexities cannot be explained in a blog post. Instead, I will describe how conventional geologic science can be applied to determine correlative relationships among rock layers.
The Gulf of Mexico Basin has received a massive sediment load — 40,000 feet or more in thickness — a product of erosion and sediment transport from the Appalachians to the Rockies over the last 50 million years. Most of the deposition was gradual, and the depositional patterns we observe in the subsurface — including barrier islands, distributary channels, submarine fans — have analogs in present-day land forms.
As the basin fills, faults compensate for the continuously increasing load of sediment. Many faults extend to the surface where their rate of displacement can be observed and measured today. Accumulated rock layers are thicker in the lower “downthrown” fault blocks, hence the name “growth faults“. One characteristic of growth faults is their “long-term continuous displacement”, to quote Wikipedia. The downthrown side can slide down the fault plane at rates up to 0.4 inches (1 cm) per year relative to upthrown.
By Emadelfar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30019242
Considering the growth fault diagram above, one may wonder how we know that the pink layer on the left corresponds to the thicker, folded pink layer across the fault. Often, that is the challenging part of a geoscientist’s job. Correlating rock layers would be easy if the many layers of sandstone and shale came color-coded, or with growth rings like trees; instead, geologists rely on index fossils to establish time relationships.
The key index fossil for the Tertiary Period is a class of mud-dwelling invertebrate called foraminifera. “Forams” have a hard calcareous shell called a “test”, and each species has a distinctive test that gives a clue to the environment where it flourished while alive.
Forams have trod (?) the earth for the last 500 million years. The succession of species — evolution, some would call it — during the Tertiary Period has been intensively studied and documented by paleontologists. Dozens upon dozens of species make up the recognized sequence.
On critical wells, drill cuttings are examined by a paleontologist, either in a lab or on the rig. At least one firm, Paleodata, Inc. of New Orleans, specializes in analysis of foraminifera and nannoplankton for the oil and gas industry. (Here are Paleodata’s biostratigraphic chart or its government-issued counterpart, both in pdf format. A detail of the second one is reproduced below.)
During the drilling process, the paleontologist notes the depth of first occurrence of certain foram marker species. The “bug names” have been adopted as the names of the rock layers and also the producing trends associated with them: for example, the Tex W, the Big Hum, the Cris I and the Cib Op are abbreviated names for separate Middle Miocene markers, 11 to 15 million years in age. There are dozens of other Gulf Coast producing trends named for their index fossils, both older and younger than the Middle Miocene.
Not only do the forams indicate timing, they also indicate environment of deposition. Some species were adapted for living in shallow water bays, others for much deeper water. The paleoenvironment can be an important clue for the geoscientist in the search for hydrocarbons.
Conflicts with Young Earth Creation
The Old Earth/Young Earth debate centers on Uniformitarianism, a founding principle of geology (and other sciences): simply stated, “The present is the key to the past.” It means that the basic processes of geology that can be observed in action today — weathering, sedimentation, and fault movement, as examples — were governed by the same physical laws and proceeded at a similar rate in the past as we observe today.
Uniformitarianism is such a threat to the Young Earth proposition that there is a website to debunk it.
The Young Earth concept of earth history seems to fall on a continuum between two endpoints:
- God created the heavens and the earth in the form we observe them now, taking 6 earth-days, about 6,000 years ago.
- God created the heavens and the earth, taking 6 earth-days 6,000 years ago, and much of what we observe in the geologic record is due to a global flood that happened since that time. Processes which appear to us to be constant (such as the speed of light) have been variable. Scientists have incorrectly assumed these processes to be constant, leading them to conclude that the earth and universe are much older.
I actually have less of a problem with Proposition #1: a Creator of infinite power could do anything, by definition. But if He did so, He didn’t distribute the oil fields randomly. The fields fall in trends that can be understood in the context of a dynamic Mississippi River system and multiple high- and low-sea level cycles. In other words, He distributed oil fields systematically, in a way that requires the study of conventional geologic science to find them.
Why in the world would He do that?
As for Proposition #2, there’s plenty of evidence that it’s just not so. When we drill wells, we measure the physical properties of the rocks we drill through. We can tell a lot about their environment of deposition and speed of deposition. For the most part, deposition is gradual, maybe inches per year. We find evidence of catastrophism in sudden mass-flow events, a lot like mudslide episodes that have been observed in the present, but these events are localized and not global.
A single-year global flood event that deposited thousands of vertical feet of sediment would necessarily leave a poorly sorted, chaotic pile of rocks. It would not leave a series of finely-bedded sandstones and shales, deposited in varying and cyclical water depths, with an orderly succession of invertebrate fossils. We have also observed small-scale “bio”-features, like worm burrows, that would be hard to account for in a Biblical Flood.
Creation Science provides a way to force harmony between modern scientific observations and a literal interpretation of the Genesis account of Creation and its translation into modern English.
What Creation Science lacks is the predictive power of a true science. Of the tens of thousands of wells that have been drilled in the Gulf Coast and offshore, I am not aware of a single well drilled based on a Creation Science concept, ignoring conventional geology.
Believers and their Beliefs
I am a member of a mainstream Christian denomination. A number of my industry colleagues are members of Fundamentalist and Evangelical denominations. I’ve never had occasion to discuss Old Earth vs.Young Earth theories with them, so I have no idea whether or how they reconcile the conflict in their minds.
At work, conventional geology is the lingua franca. It is how we communicate our ideas, how we explain our failures, and how we make our plans to drill the next well.
My beliefs? Genesis reveals our Creator God and His desire to have a relationship with man. He gave man dominion over all the earth, and set lights in the sky so that we could mark the passage of time; for me, that includes the red shift. God gave man curious and discerning minds so that we can understand His creation and thereby benefit mankind. Through this understanding we can come to appreciate the design of creation, the better to know the Creator.
Much of the controversy about origins and earth history involves school curricula. What should we teach our kids?
I’m imagining a two-sided protest placard.
On one side it says, “KEEP EVOLUTION OUT OF OUR SCHOOLS!”
On the other it says, “DRILL, BABY, DRILL!”
Friends, our young people need to learn science, and more importantly, the scientific method.
Thanks, Steve, for your blog posts. I highly enjoy your insight into public policy from the perspective of an energy resources expert!
You made the following quote in the article above:
“I am a member of a mainstream Christian denomination. A number of my industry colleagues are members of Fundamentalist and Evangelical denominations. I’ve never had occasion to discuss Old Earth vs.Young Earth theories with them, so I have no idea whether or how they reconcile the conflict in their minds.
The following links reference a Christian PhD in geology, Andrew Snelling, who worked successfully in oil and mineral exploration in Australia for a number of years.
“…Dr. Andrew Snelling is a geologist, research scientist, and technical editor. He completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Applied Geology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, graduating with First Class Honors in 1975. His Doctor of Philosophy (in geology) was awarded by The University of Sydney, Australia, in 1982 for his research thesis titled “A geochemical study of the Koongarra uranium deposit, Northern Territory, Australia.” Between studies and since Andrew worked for six years in the exploration and mining industries in Tasmania, New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia, and the Northern Territory variously as a field, mine, and research geologist. Dr. Snelling has had papers published in a variety of publications, including a number of secular journals such as Journal of Geochemical Exploration, Applied Geochemistry, Mineralium Deposita, Uranium, and Proceedings of the Pine Creek Geosyncline Symposium. He was a consultant to Alligator Rivers analog project—an international collaborative project funded by the USA Department of Energy—involved British, Japanese, Swedish, USA, and Australian scientists. It was an Australian project initiated by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Association and also a consultant for an International Mining Company (Denison)…”
“…For example, when geologists are finding oil or other deposits, it has nothing to do with millions of years, but everything to do with the type of strata and how it’s been laid down. Creationists and evolutionists can use the same names for the layers to find oil and other deposits—it’s not the age that matters but the type of layers. Dr. Snelling writes the following:
‘Successful oil and mineral exploration and discoveries do not depend on believing the strata are millions of years old. In fact, the supposed ages are irrelevant, both to the exploration techniques used and to successful discoveries. I personally was involved in such work throughout Australia for several successful commercial exploration and mining companies over nearly ten years…’ ”
If these links to fully accredited and reputable Christian “young earth” geologists are helpful, great. At any rate, thanks for your first class work and commentaries on public policy amid other things. I always read your posts!
Thanks for your comment, John. Dr. Snelling’s comment that age is irrelevant is true to an extent. It matters little that the Big Hum is 12 million years old. He does stress “the type of strata and how it’s been laid down.” One can safely ignore the question “And what does that imply about the age of the earth?” and I’m sure many people do just that, but he kind of makes my point. A YE creationist in an earth science field must understand and apply the principles of the science as it’s taught in most universities.
No idea when, but Peter Marshall has accepted the blog to be posted at his site. From what I’ve seen they have lively debates in the comments. Check it out. Steve