Got a tip from a friend of mine, (Thanks, Eric!), with some interesting info about synthetic oil. Along with that info was a link to the idea of abiotic oil. In all of the hoopla about oil reserves and peak oil and what comes next, I had never run across this idea before which is that oil is generated by natural processes in the earth's magma, not by deteriorating fossilized organic materials. Oil, in other words, is being formed today at rates that could stretch supplies far, far into the future.
I have no idea yet what to think of this because I've just come across it and I have nowhere near enough information to begin to form any conclusions. In the reading I have done so far, the idea sounds plausible. The Deep Hot Biosphere : The Myth of Fossil Fuels, has a forward written by Freeman Dyson and supportive comments from Hans Bethe, two individuals with formidable credentials in the sciences. The arguments are fascinating and I intend to do more digging to find out what it's all about.
Ideas like these are interesting because they are outside commonly accepted theories about how the physical world works. Many ideas like this, upon examination crumble quickly, but once in a while you come across one that holds up. It would seem if this had a sound basis in fact, companies would be racing to investigate, and in fact, the theory seems to be gaining increasing attention and the wiki article says the American Association of Petroleum Geologists had a conference on the topic this past June. If the theory is true it would upset our current thinking on the subject and would change the debate about energy policy in a major way. The peak oil folks would have a fit, too.