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What does oil exploration tell us about the age of the earth?

This post is more than 6 years old.

Posted at 09:00 on 24 July 2017

Is the scientific consensus on the age of the earth entirely the product of presupposition and an a priori commitment to uniformitarianism, evolution, and philosophical naturalism, as young-earth creationists claim?

We can be pretty sure that anything that comes from the oil industry won't be for starters. Petroleum geologists have to come up with results that are correct, not results that are ideologically convenient. If they really were adjusting their geology to line up with their theology, they would send the oil companies on a wild goose chase drilling in all the wrong places, and wasting vast sums of money and a lot of political good will in the process.

So, what does the oil industry have to say about the age of the earth?

According to Answers in Genesis, nothing. A couple of years ago, Ken Ham wrote a blog post in which, among other things, he quoted Andrew Snelling, AiG's resident geologist, as claiming that the ages of the rock strata are irrelevant to oil exploration:

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.

Jonathan Baker, a Christian geochronologist, responded to this claim on his blog, Age of Rocks. In a post titled "Can Young-Earth Creationists Find Oil?" he explained that anyone who has ever tried baking a cake should realise that Dr. Snelling's claim is simply not true.

I know exactly what he's talking about. My first attempt at baking a lemon drizzle cake was a disaster. I had the oven turned up too high, and as a result the outside of the cake ended up burnt to a cinder while the middle was still completely soggy and hadn't even started. This was because the chemical reactions that take place when baking a cake are dependent on both time and temperature, so if the outside of your cake overheats while the inside is still warming up, you'll end up with the same results as I did. In fact, chemical reaction rates are governed by an equation called the Arrhenius equation. For many common chemical reactions, the rate doubles for every 10°C increase in temperature.

As Dr. Baker points out, exactly the same thing is true for oil.

Lemon drizzle cake. Image courtesy of Daniel Hadley.

Once petroleum geologists have identified a location for a potential oil deposit, they need to determine not only how old it is, but also its thermal history. If it hasn't been "baking" long enough, it will be "premature," still solid, and impossible to get it out of the ground. On the other hand, if it has been "baking" for too long, or if the temperature's been too high, it will be "post-mature." At best you'll get a lot of natural gas and much heavier, more viscous substances such as bitumen or asphalt, which are much more difficult to extract from the ground. At worst, you'll find it all baked away into oblivion.

In other words, petroleum geologists have to get the ages of the oil deposits right. And they can't afford to let their theology influence their geology either. There's no room whatsoever for any kind of presupposition — atheistic or otherwise — in the oil industry.

I have not yet seen an adequate young-earth response to Dr. Baker's post. Answers in Genesis does have an older article which attempts to poke holes in the conventional explanation for the origin of oil, and to come up with a young-earth alternative, but the fact remains that the conventional, old-earth models have proven to be very successful in their ability to predict where oil deposits can be found. Young-earth models have not even attempted it.

The message from the oil industry about the age of the earth is clear. Long ages are not an atheist conspiracy, they are not based on presupposition, they are not a religion, they are not any kind of "compromise," they are not an attempt to make time for evolution, and they do not depend on your worldview. They are the clear and unambiguous conclusion indicated by evidence that can not be interpreted any other way.