Prof. J. P. Lesley has at various times advocated the theory that petroleum is indigenous in the sand-rocks which hold it, and has been derived from plants buried in them. ("Proc. Amer. Philos. Soc.," Vol. X., pp. 33, 187, etc.)
My own observations do not sanction this view, as the limited number of plants buried in the sandstones which are now reservoirs of petroleum must always have borne a small proportion in volume to the mass of inorganic matter; and some of those which are saturated with petroleum are almost completely destitute of the impressions of plants.
In all cases where sandstones contain petroleum in quantity, I think it will be found that there are sheets of carbonaceous matter below, from which carbureted hydrogen and petroleum are constantly issuing. A more probable explanation of the occurrence of petrolem in the sandstones is that they have, from their porosity, become convenient receptacles for that which flowed from some organic stratum below.
Dr. T. Sterry Hunt has regarded limestones, and especially the Niagara and corniferous, as the principal sources of our petroleum; but, as I have elsewhere suggested, no considerable flow of petroleum has ever been obtained from the Niagara limestone, though at Chicago and Niagara Falls it contains a large quantity of bituminous matter; also, that the corniferous limestone which Dr. Hunt has regarded as the source of the oil of Canada and Pennsylvania is too thin, and too barren of petroleum, or the material out of which it is made, to justify the inference.
The corniferous limestone is never more than fifty or sixty feet thick, and does not contain even one per cent. of hydrocarbons; and in southern Kentucky, where oil is produced in large quantity, this limestone does not exist.
That many limestones are more or less charged with petroleum is well known; and in addition to those mentioned above, the Silurian limestone at Collingwood, Canada, may be cited as an example. As I have elsewhere shown, we have reason to believe that the petroleum here is indigenous, and has been derived, in part, at least, from animal organisms; but the limestones are generally compact, and if cellular, their cavities are closed, and the amount of petroleum which, under any circumstances, flows from or can be extracted from limestone rock is small. On the other hand, the bituminous shales which underlie the different oil regions afford an abundant source of supply, holding the proper relations with the reservoirs that contain the oil, and are spontaneously and constantly evolving gas and oil, as may be observed in a great number of localities. For this reason, while confessing the occurrence of petroleum and asphaltum in many limestones, I am thoroughly convinced that little or none of the petroleum of commerce is derived from them.
Prof. S.F. Peckham, who has studied the petroleum field of southern California, attributes the abundant hydrocarbon emanations in that locality to microscopic animals. It is quite possible that this is true in this and other localities, but the bituminous shales which are evidently the sources of the petroleum of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, etc., generally contain abundant impressions of sea weeds, and indeed these are almost the only organisms which have left any traces in them. I am inclined, therefore, now, as in my report on the rock oils of Ohio, published in 1860, to ascribe the carbonaceous matter of the bituminous shales of Pennsylvania and Ohio, and hence the petroleum derived from them, to the easily decomposed cellular tissue of algae which have in their decomposition contributed a large percentage of diffused carbonaceous matter to the sediments accumulating at the bottom of the water where they grew. In a recent communication to the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. T. Sterry Hunt has proposed the theory that anthracite is the result of the decomposition of vegetable tissue when buried in porous strata like sandstone; but an examination of even a few of the important deposits of anthracite in the world will show that no such relationship as he suggests obtains.
Anthracite may and does occur in sedimentary rocks of varied character, but, so far as my observation has extended, never in quantity in sandstone. In the Lower Silurian rocks anthracite occurs, both in the Old World and in the New, where no metamorphism has affected it, and where it is simply the normal result of the long continued distillation of plant tissue; but the anthracite beds which are known and mined in so many countries are the results of the metamorphism of coal-beds of one or another age, by local outbursts of trap, or the steaming and baking of the disturbed strata in mountain chains, numerous instances of which are given on a preceding page.
M. Mendeleeff, in his article already referred to, misled by a want of knowledge of the geology of our oil-fields, and ascribing the petroleum to an inorganic cause, connects the production of oil in Pennsylvania and Caucasia with the neighboring mountain chains of the Alleghanies and the Caucasus; but in these localities a sufficient amount of organic matter can be found to supply a source for the petroleum, while the upheaval and loosening of the strata along lines parallel with the axes of elevation has favored the decomposition (spontaneous distillation) of the carbonaceous strata. It should be distinctly stated, also, that no igneous rocks are found in the vicinity of productive oil-wells, here or elsewhere, and there are no facts to sustain the view that petroleum is a volcanic product.
In the valley of the Mississippi, in Ohio, Illinois, and Kentucky, are great deposits of petroleum, far removed from any mountain chain or volcanic vent, and the cases which have been cited of the limited production of hydrocarbons in the vicinity of, and probably in connection with, volcanic centers may be explained by supposing that in these cases the petroleum is distilled from sedimentary strata containing organic matter by the proximity of melted rock, or steam.
Everything indicates that the distillation which has produced the greatest quantities of petroleum known was effected at a low temperature, and the constant escape of petroleum and carbureted hydrogen from the outcrops of bituminous shales, as well as the result of weathering on the shales, depriving them of all their carbon, shows that the distillation and complete elimination of the organic matter they contain may take place at the ordinary temperature.