A lot of people get this pretty basic question about oil wrong

The Sinclair Oil Corporation’s logo is an Apatosaurus named “Dino.” Paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara says he thinks some of the association between dinosaurs and oil started with the company’s advertising. (Creative Commons photo by Jason Clor.)

There’s a pretty basic question about oil that a lot of people get wrong: Does it come from dinosaurs?

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Doing a quick poll on the streets of Fairbanks, a lot of people thought it did.

Zach Lyons, a geologist with the oil and gas division at the Bureau of Land Management, Alaska, says that’s a persistent falsehood.

“Oil actually originates from plants and tiny marine organisms that sink down to the ocean floor and are buried over the course of millions of years,” Lyons said.

The plants and critters Lyons is talking about are tiny; most are only visible through a microscope.

Little by little, over millions of years, these creatures died and piled up at the bottom of the sea, mixing with mud and sand to form layers that could be tens of thousands of feet thick. And through a particular formula of heat, pressure, lack of oxygen, and hundreds of millions of years… that marine sludge became oil.

So why do so many people have the impression that we’re loading up our gas tanks with giant ancient reptiles?

Kenneth Lacovara is a paleontologist and geologist, and Dean of the School of Earth & Environment at Rowan University in New Jersey.

“I have tried to trace the history of this” Lacovara said, “And I think it largely goes back to the Sinclair Oil Company.”

You probably know Sinclair Oil by their logo: a big green dinosaur. Sinclair never actually claimed that oil came from dinosaurs, but the creatures became central to their marketing starting back in the 1930s.

But can one company single-handedly create that kind of association?

“Dinosaurs I think, in the public imagination, stand in for the ancient,” Lacovara said. “And dinosaurs are of course known to us as fossils, and oil is called a fossil fuel, and so I think it’s easy for people to make that connection in their minds.”

Lacovara says that the connection runs deep.  It’s a misconception he’s still working to correct.

“I speak to school groups quite frequently,” Lacovara said. “And I have had to correct school teachers in the past who have been teaching their kids that oil comes from dinosaurs.”

So if oil doesn’t come from dinosaurs that died out millions of years ago, what does that mean for the future of oil? Could it be replenished hundreds of millions of years down the line? The answer is… maybe.

The conditions that made all that oil possible — a much warmer climate that encouraged explosive growth of those little marine critters — we just don’t see that now at the same scale.

“So while we are producing the raw material today that could later be turned into petroleum by geological processes, we’re probably not producing them as fast now as 100 million years ago,” Lacovara said.

In other words, we don’t see the conditions on Earth today that would lead to the replication of the oil we’ve used up. But geologic time is a lot longer than human time. You never know what might happen in several hundred million years…