Shale Oil: The world’s ten largest national reserves

July 9, 2013

Oil and Gas IQ lists the ten nations with the largest reserves of technically recoverable shale oil (note, as always, that shale oil and oil shale – kerogen – are not the same things).  At the link, there is a thumbnail description of each nation’s shale oil resource.  Here, I will simply list (in reverse order) the nations with their technically recoverable totals:

  • Indonesia, 8 billion barrels
  • Canada, 9 billion barrels
  • Pakistan, 9 billion barrels
  • Mexico, 13 billion barrels
  • Venezuela, 13 billion barrels
  • Libya, 26 billion barrels
  • Argentina, 27 billion barrels
  • China, 32 billion barrels
  • United States, 58 billion barrels
  • Russia, 75 billion barrels

The list is based on this report from the US Energy Information Agency (link opens PDF file).  It should be noted that there appears to be an error in the report – in the detailed tables, the report lists Australia as having 17.5 billion barrels of technically recoverable reserves, which would place it 6th on the list, but then leaves Australia off its Top Ten list entirely.  Either the 17.5 is a mistake or the omission of Australia from the Top Ten is an error.  I believe the latter is the case.

Russia is the world’s largest oil producing nation (because the Saudis restrict their production per OPEC policy), and their estimated total of 75 billion barrels of TRR shale oil is nearly as much as its 80 billion barrels of proven reserves of conventional crude.  The US is the third largest producer, and our 58 billion barrel TRR shale reserve is more than twice the estimated 25 billion barrels of conventional supply.  Everywhere but OPEC, the future of oil is in shale.  Indeed, the estimates for Russia may be low – by a wide margin.  Most of Russia’s shale oil lies in the Bazhenov Formation in the conventionally productive West Siberian Basin.  Bazhenov contains a total estimate of over 1.2 trillion barrels; the 75 billion TRR estimate is just 6% of that total.  As production techniques and technologies advance and refine, the total amount of oil generated could grow by an enormous amount.


But shale oil is not the only unconventional resource.  As large as the Bazhenov Formation is – and it is 4 to 5 times the size of Saudi Arabia’s proved reserves of270 billion barrels – it is only the second largest known formation of unconventional oil.  In the US, the oil shale (kerogen) formations in the Rocky Mountain states are estimated to have 1.3 trillion barrels, with up to 800 billion technically (but, currently, not economically) recoverable.

Uinta Basin Kerogen Formation, Utah

Uinta Basin Kerogen Formation, Utah

The largest formation in the world that is currently being produced is the Orinoco Heavy Oil Belt in Venezuela, which has over 500 billion barrels, almost twice the reserves in Saudi Arabia.

Orinoco Heavy Oil Belt

These three unconventional reserves together contain over 3 trillion barrels of oil, which is more than 20 times the total amount of oil that has been pumped since the beginning of the Oil Age.  A little less than half of it is considered technically recoverable, which is still 10x the total amount of oil that has been pumped in our entire history.  The world, as we say, is awash in oil (unconventional though it may be).

Shale oil – and shale gas – are just two tips of the hydrocarbon iceberg.  Combined, there are several times more fossil fuels still in the ground than have been burned in the entire Industrial Age to date.  And that doesn’t even count future generation sources like methane hydrates or captured CO2 recycled into methanol.

The fact of long term availability of fossil fuels is definitively established.  All that remains is to develop the technology to utilize those fuels cleanly and efficiently – and that will require a policy environment that recognizes the need to continue  burning hydrocarbons.  The Obama Administration has already made a dramatic move in this direction with its embrace of natural gas as a lynchpin in its “climate strategy.”  And relying on gas will necessitate a new, more permissive policy regime from the EPA that will pave the way for other unconventional resources in the future.


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