The Carbon Isotope Ratio Nonsense

An Example of the Little-Moron Logic & Mendacity of BOOP:

The Carbon Isotope Ratio Nonsense.


  1. F. Kenney

Gas Resources Corporation


According to the program, I am supposed to explain the spontaneous generation of natural petroleum in 15(!) minutes.  This subject is one which involves, in detail, the statistical mechanics of chemical thermodynamic stability theory.  Fifteen minutes would be inadequate to give even an introduction to the subject.

For the moment, please understand first that the unnecessary and misleading adjective “abiotic” should be dropped as a modifier of the term natural petroleum.  Natural petroleum is generated spontaneously only at high pressures.  The high pressures necessary for the generation of petroleum occur at depths in the Earth where the temperatures are sufficiently  high that any biological molecule would have thoroughly decomposed at a much shallower depth.

Many misguided persons have attempted during the past 75 years to demonstrate in laboratories a spontaneous generation of petroleum from biological detritus.  All such attempts have failed utterly, – although many have been fraudulently misreported.

There is no information about petroleum generation that I can give to you which will be of any value to you, or which you will be able to use effectively, until you have taken a measure of the imbecility of the notion that natural petroleum is some sort of  “fossil fuel” that has come into being through some (miraculous but unspecified) transformation of biological detritus in the regimes of temperature and pressure of the near-surface crust of the Earth.  You must realize that the notion of a biological origin of petroleum is not only unscientific but also just plain humbug.  [Hereafter, the phrase “biological-origin-of-petroleum” will be referred to by its acronym:  BOOP].  Without such understanding or lacking such measure, even when given a clear description of the chemical processes by which natural petroleum spontaneously evolves, you will likely fall into one or more of the erroneous perspectives:

○          “Oh yes, the abiotic generation of petroleum is an interesting alternate view of oil and gas,” or

○          “Well, there may be some oil that has resulted from abiotic processes, but such must be only a negligible small amount,” or even,

○          “Modern petroleum science is rigorous alright, but, of course, all oil fields come from decayed organic matter (!!!)”.

Considering such errors and before going further:

○          Modern petroleum science is not an “alternate perspective” to BOOP, as astrophysics is not an alternate perspective to astrology, nor is cranial neurology to phrenology, nor chemistry to alchemy.

○          The quantity of natural petroleum which has been spontaneously generated abiotically according to the laws of physics and chemistry in the depths of the Earth exceed 1015  metric tons.1

○          All petroleum deposits are comprised of hydrocarbon compounds that have been generated abiotically at high pressure and in absence of any biological molecules.      


“Prepared as an invited paper for the Deep Carbon Cycle Workshop, Carnegie Institute, Washington, D. C., 15-17 May 2008”

©Gas Resources Corporation, 2008


  1. The Little-Moron logic of the claims about the stable carbon isotope ratios.

The assertion that natural petroleum (“crude oil”) is a “fossil fuel” somehow evolved by a miraculous process of transformation from biological detritus in the thermodynamic regime of pressures and temperatures in the near-surface crust of the Earth, is a nonsensical, child’s fairy-story, supported  by Little-Moron Logic and defended by lies.  No aspect of the assertion that natural petroleum is of a biological origin demonstrates the Little-Moron Logic, and also the lies, more than do claims that the ratios of the stable isotopes of carbon, 12C and 13C, represent “evidence” for  BOOP.  These claims, and the moronic quality of the illogical arguments supporting them are here reviewed.

A common variety of Little-Moron Logic that runs through BOOP is the type that logicians designate “Affirming the Consequent.”  In formal logic, affirming the Consequent is set forth by the following fallacious illogic.  The formal proposition and its consequent:

Given an accepted syllogism or fact, –

o   If A, then B.

Then following an observation related to the syllogism or fact, –

o   B.

There proceeds theneafter the illogical affirmation of the consequent, –

o   then A.

Here are given three demonstrations of Little-Moron Logic that apply Affirming the Consequent.

1)                  Affirming the Consequent, – Marilyn Monroe/Hollywood Style:

o   Marilyn Monroe is a woman with blonde hair

o   That woman has blonde hair.

o   Therefore that woman is Marilyn Monroe.

2)                  Affirming the Consequent, – Lucy/Peanuts Style:

(taken from the comic strip of that name).

o   All cats are mortal.

o   Socrates is mortal.

o   Therefore Socrates is a cat.

3)                  Affirming the Consequent, – Barbara-Lollar/BOOP Style:

o   Biological matter manifests 13C/12C isotope ratios in the range more negative than – 18.0% on the Peedee Belemnite standard.

o   Some natural petroleum manifest 13C/12C isotope ratios in the range more negative than – 18.0% on the Peedee Belemnite standard.

o   Therefore natural petroleum comes from biological matter.

All of which are recognized to be pure Little-Moron Logic.  Upon such are based all  the claims that natural petroleum is supposedly derived from biological detritus because of its ratios of the stable carbon isotopes.

  1. The technical inadequacy of the carbon isotope ratios as indicators of origin.

The claims made concerning the carbon stable-isotope ratios, and specifically such as purport to identify the origin of the material, particularly the hydrocarbons, are especially recondite and outside the experience of most persons not knowledgeable of the physics of hydrogen-carbon [H-C] systems.  Furthermore, the claims concerning the carbon stable-isotope ratios most often involve methane, the only hydrocarbon which is thermodynamically stable in the regime of temperatures and pressures of the Earth’s crust and almost the only one which spontaneously evolves there.

The carbon nucleus has two stable isotopes, 12C and 13C.  The overwhelmingly most abundance stable isotope of carbon is 12C, which possesses six protons and six neutrons; 13C  possesses an extra neutron. (There is another, unstable isotope, 14C, which possesses two extra neutrons;  14C results from a high-energy reaction of the nitrogen nucleus, 14N, with a high-energy cosmic ray particle.  The isotope 14C is not involved in the claims about the isotope ratios of carbon).  The carbon isotope ratio, designated δ13C, is simply the ratio of the abundance of carbon isotopes 13C/12C, normalized to the standard of the marine carbonate Pee Dee Belemnite.  The values of the measured δ13C ratio is expressed as a percentage (compared to the standard).

During the 1950’s, increasingly numerous measurements of the carbon isotope ratios of hydrocarbon gases were taken, particularly of methane; and too often assertions were made that such ratios could unambiguously determine the origin of the hydrocarbons.  The validity of such assertions were tested, independently by Colombo, Gazzarini, and Gonfiantini in Italy and by Galimov in Russia.  Both sets of workers established that the carbon isotope ratios cannot be used reliably to determine the origin of the carbon compound tested.

Columbo, Gazzarini, and Gonfiantini demonstrated conclusively, by a simple experiment the results of which admitted no ambiguity, that the carbon isotope ratios of methane change continuously along its transport path, becoming progressively lighter with distance traveled.  Colombo et al. took a sample of natural gas and passed it through a column of crushed rock, chosen to resemble as closely as possible the terrestrial environment.2  Their results were definitive:  The greater the distance of rock through which the sample of methane passes, the lighter becomes its carbon isotope ratio.

The reason for the result observed by Colombo et al. is straightforward:  there is a slight preference for the heavier isotope of carbon to react chemically with the rock through which the gas passes.  Therefore, the greater the transit distance through the rock, the lighter becomes the carbon isotope ratio, as the heavier is preferentially removed by chemical reaction along the transport path.  This result is not surprising; contrarily, and is entirely consistent with the fundamental requirements of quantum mechanics and kinetic theory.

Pertinent to the matter of any claim that a light carbon isotope ratio might be indicative of a biological origin, the results demonstrated by Colombo et al. establish that such a claim is insupportable.  Methane which might have originated from carbon material from the remains of a carbonaceous meteorite in the mantle of the Earth, and possessing initially a heavy carbon isotope ratio, would have that ratio diminished, along the path of its transit into the crust of the Earth, to a value comparable to common biological material.

Galimov demonstrated that the carbon isotope ratio of methane can become progressively heavier while at rest in a reservoir in the crust of the Earth, through the action of methane-consuming microbes.3  The city of Moscow stores methane in water-wet reservoirs on the outskirts of that city, into which natural gas is injected throughout the year.  During summers, the quantity of methane in the reservoirs increases because of less use (primarily by heating), and during winters the quantity is drawn down.  By calibrating the reservoir volumes and the distance from the injection facilities, the residency time of the methane in the reservoir is determined. Galimov established that the longer the methane remains in the reservoir, the heavier becomes its carbon isotope ratio.

The reason for the result observed by Galimov is also straightforward:  In the water of the reservoir, there live microbes of the common, methane-metabolizing type.  There is a slight preference for the lighter isotope of carbon to enter the microbe cell and to be metabolized.  The longer the methane remains in the reservoir, the more of it is consumed by the methane-metabolizing microbes, with the molecules possessing lighter isotope being consumed more.  Therefore, the longer its residency time in the reservoir, the heavier becomes the carbon isotope ratio, as the lighter is preferentially removed by methane-metabolizing microbes.  This result is entirely consistent with the fundamental requirements of kinetic theory.

Furthermore, the carbon isotope ratios in hydrocarbon systems are also strongly influenced by the temperature of reaction.  For hydrocarbons produced by the Fischer-Tropsch process, the δ13C varies from

-65% at 127 C to –20% at 177C.4,5  No material parameter, the measurement of which varies by almost 70% with a variation of temperature of only approximately 10%, can be used as a reliable determinant of any property of that material.

The δ13C carbon isotope ratio cannot be considered to determine reliably the origin of a sample of methane, – or any other compound, and no ethical and competent scientist or engineer would try to use them as such, excepting very unusual circumstances.

III.       The Black Swan Effect & the Tuchman Phase-3 Phenomenon:  The Mendacious Defense of the Little-Moron Logic about the Assertions that the Stable Carbon Isotopes Identify a  Biological Origin of Petroleum [BOOP].

The phrase “Black Swan effect” has its origins in the scientific dictum that holds that a single exception disproves any putative claim,- i.e., the observation of a single black swan destroys any assertion that “all swans are white,” and does no matter how many white swans may have been observed.  The Black Swan effect is a phenomenon recognized in mathematics and the  hard sciences, and their associated engineering disciplines, whereby any single observed exception to a putative rule destroys that rule, irredeemably.  In mathematics, a single demonstrated counter-example destroys any proposed theorem.  The hard sciences provide many examples, such as:

o   When A. H. Michaelson first measured the transverse variation of the velocity of light, using the interferometer that he invented and which bears his name, and destroyed immediately the “undulating-ether” theory of  light.

o   When E. Rutherford measured the scattering of alpha-particles in thin metallic films and destroyed at once the Thomson model of the atom.

o   When Mme Wu measure the asymmetry of beta-decay and destroyed the dictum of parity conservation in fundamental nuclear interactions.

o   When the young American from Woburn, Massachusetts, Benjamin Thompson, cranked up his cannon-boring machine and destroyed in an afternoon the caloric theory of heat which had been held previously to be true for half a century.

The Black Swan for the claims that the stable carbon isotope ratios might distinguish methane as of biotic or abiotic origin was the direct observation by Giardini & Melton6 that such cannot be considered a reliable criterion for ascertaining the origin of petroleum.  Giardini & Melton took a primoridial natural diamond of 8.65 carats and measured the carbon isotope ratio of the CO2 entrapped in its inclusions.  The results were an isotope ratio of –35.2% on the standard PeeDee scale.  Previously the carbon isotope ratios more negative than – 18.0% had been assigned a biological origin.  The diamond tested by Giardini & Melton was measured to be of an age of crystallization of at least 3.1 x 109 years, well before any record of biological life on Earth.  The observation by Giardini & Melton destroyed any claimed validity of the carbon isotope ratio as a determinant of the origin of petroleum, – and probably of any other carbon compound.

Of course, an intelligent 12-year old schoolboy might be expected to ask, “why wasn’t the light-end limit of the carbon isotope ratios ever measured for the abiotic molecules before all the claims were made.  After all, just because the heavy-end limit of the biotic molecules ends at – 18.0%, there stands no reason why the light-end limit of the abiotic molecules should coincide with this value.” The BOOPies have never asked this question.

Similarly, during the past forty years, a number of scientists, both in the former U.S.S.R. and in the U.S.A., have tested the validity of the assertions that a ratio of the abundances of the stable carbon isotopes can give a valid indication of the origin of the material from which the carbon material was obtained.  Without exception, these scientists have demonstrated that the carbon isotope ratios can not give any reliable indication of the origin of the material of which the carbon atoms were obtained.  These negative results have been shown to hold incontestably for any measurements which yield isotope ratios “lighter” than –18.0% by the PeeDee Belemenite standard and which have been often claimed to give “evidence” of a biotic origin.  Samples of carbon fluids which manifest carbon isotope ratios “heavier” than –18.0% by the standard scale are usually (although notnecessarily) “identified” as being of an abiotic origin.  As the experiments of Galimov et al have demonstrated, such “identification” can easily be spurious. However, in circumstances in which the carbon fluids came from a high-temperature source and was characterized by a high flow rate, – as, for example, from a deep ocean vent, – then a “heavy” measure of the stable carbon isotope ratio may be taken as consistent with (not “proof of”) a deep, abiotic origin of such carbon fluids.

The Tuchman Phase-3 Phenomenon identifies the impetus behind the claims for the carbon isotopes ratios.  When one acknowledges the discrediting of claims that a measurement of the relative abundances of stable carbon isotopes might give a valid determination of the origin of whatever fluid from such were taken, and particularly whether that fluid was of biotic or abiotic origin, the question stands:  Why do some persons persist in asserting such scientifically insupportable claims?  This question intrudes particularly when one notes that the assertions about the carbon isotope ratios were discredited more than twenty years ago.

The answer to this question has been given clearly by the historian Barbara Tuchman in her book “The March of Folly: From Troy to Viet Nam.”7  Tuchman poses the question:  How do men of weak moral fiber react when confronted with information that threatens their social status, or their financial circumstance, or their professional position, or their status as an expert or guru in one area or another, or their political power? Borrowing from the behavioral sciences, Tuchman explains that such men invariably manifest the behavior identified as cognitive dissonance.  The behavior of cognitive dissonance involves three phases which Tuchman describes as follows:

○  Phase I:  Characterized by denial, usually with an attitude of “Don’t bother me with facts; my mind is made up.”

○  Phase II:  Characterized by waffling and attempts to denigrate or minimize the significance of the unwelcome facts, usually with expressed claims like, “Oh, we already know all about such and so, and it’s really not relevant or important,” and often, “If you really possessed all the information that we do, you would understand that such and so is not as you think it to be.”  And so on.

○  Phase III:  Characterized by outright lying.  In this phase, the moral weakling can no longer deny the unwelcome facts, and his contemporaries or the general public know that he knows such, – and he knows that they know he knows it.  In this phase, the fellow descends to outright lying; he makes pronouncements that he knows to be false, and hopes to brazen it all out.

Phases I, II, and III are not mutually exclusive.  A man can operate simultaneously in any two, or even all three.  In this decade of this century, the purveyors of BOOP who try to proclaim that any measurement of the ratio of the abundances of the stable carbon isotopes gives a definite determination of

the origin of whatever compound or fluid has been tested, or of whether a hydrocarbon compound is of biotic or abiotic origin, are operating well into Tuchman’s Phase III.  That the carbon isotope ratios cannot give any reliable determination is well known.

Such is the purveyance of BOOP:  Transparent lying to defend little-moron logic in the service of imbecility.  All of which does not provide a viable basis for a nation’s energy policy; and none of which ought to continue to be supported with public tax payers’ money.

1Giardini, A. A., Melton, C.E., Mitchell, R.S., (1982), J Pet. Geo., 5, 2, 173-190;

2U.Colombo, F.Gazzarini and R. Gonfiantini, “Die Variationen in der chemischen und isotopenZusammenstzung von Erdgas aus Suditalien”,Leipzig, 1967, vol. Vortrag ASTI-67;

3E. M. Galimov, Isotope Zusammensetzung des Kohlenstoffe aus Gassen der Erdrinde, Leipzig, 1967;

4,5P. Szatmari, “Petroleum formation by Fischer-Tropsch synthesis in plate tectonics”, Bull. A.A.P.G., 1989, 73, 989-996

6Giardini, A. A., Melton, C.E., (1982), J. Pet. Geo, 4, 4, 437-439, “Evidence that stable carbon isotopes are not a reliable criterion for distinguishing biogenic from non-biogenic petroleum.”

7Tuchman, Barbara (1984), Ballentine Books, Random House, New York, New York, The March of ††Folly: From Troy to Viet Nam


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