When he was running for the Oval Office four years ago amid $4-a-gallon gasoline prices, then-Sen. Barack Obama dismissed the idea of expanded oil production as a way to relieve the pain at the pump.
“Even if you opened up every square inch of our land and our coasts to drilling,” he said. “America still has only 3% of the world’s oil reserves.” Which meant, he said, that the U.S. couldn’t affect global oil prices.
It’s the same rhetoric President Obama is using now, as gas prices hit $4 again, except now he puts the figure at 2%.
“With only 2% of the world’s oil reserves, we can’t just drill our way to lower gas prices,” he said. “Not when we consume 20% of the world’s oil.”
The claim makes it appear as though the U.S. is an oil-barren nation, perpetually dependent on foreign oil and high prices unless we can cut our own use and develop alternative energy sources like algae.
U.S. Awash In Oil
But the figure Obama uses — proved oil reserves — vastly undercounts how much oil the U.S. actually contains. In fact, far from being oil-poor, the country is awash in vast quantities — enough to meet all the country’s oil needs for hundreds of years.
The U.S. has 22.3 billion barrels of proved reserves, a little less than 2% of the entire world’s proved reserves, according to the Energy Information Administration. But as the EIA explains, proved reserves “are a small subset of recoverable resources,” because they only count oil that companies are currently drilling for in existing fields.
When you look at the whole picture, it turns out that there are vast supplies of oil in the U.S., according to various government reports. Among them:
At least 86 billion barrels of oil in the Outer Continental Shelf yet to be discovered, according to the government’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
About 24 billion barrels in shale deposits in the lower 48 states, according to EIA.
Up to 2 billion barrels of oil in shale deposits in Alaska’s North Slope, says the U.S. Geological Survey.
Up to 12 billion barrels in ANWR, according to the USGS.
As much as 19 billion barrels in the Utah tar sands, according to the Bureau of Land Management.
Then, there’s the massive Green River Formation in Wyoming, which according to the USGS contains a stunning 1.4 trillion barrels of oil shale — a type of oil released from sedimentary rock after it’s heated.
A separate Rand Corp. study found that about 800 billion barrels of oil shale in Wyoming and neighboring states is “technically recoverable,” which means it could be extracted using existing technology. That’s more than triple the known reserves in Saudi Arabia.
All told, the U.S. has access to 400 billion barrels of crude that could be recovered using existing drilling technologies, according to a 2006 Energy Department report.
When you include oil shale, the U.S. has 1.4 trillion barrels of technically recoverable oil, according to the Institute for Energy Research, enough to meet all U.S. oil needs for about the next 200 years, without any imports.
And even this number could be low, since such estimates tend to go up over time.
Back in 1995, for example, the USGS figured there were 151 million barrels of oil in North Dakota’s Bakken formation. In 2008, it upped that estimate to 3 billion barrels to 4.3 billion barrels — a 25-fold increase. Now, some oil analysts say there could be as much as 20 billion barrels there.
And USGS in 2002 quadrupled its oil estimate in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve.
To be sure, energy companies couldn’t profitably recover all this oil — even at today’s prices — and what they could wouldn’t make it to market for years. But from the industry’s perspective, the real problem with domestic oil is that the government has roped off most of these supplies.
The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, for example, put a huge swatch of land off-limits to drilling. And in 1982, Congress blocked access to most of the oil in the Outer Continental Shelf. Much of the oil on federal lands is also off-limits.
Obama and others say the industry’s claim about lack of access isn’t true, since they aren’t even using many of the offshore leases they already have. The industry counters that this is misleading, since a company needs the lease before it can determine if any oil exists there — a potentially time-consuming process.
In any case, any attempt to get at these vast new oil supplies is sure to face fierce opposition from environmental groups worried about oil production’s direct impact on the environment, as well as global warming worries.
But given today’s prices, most of the public is willing to expand drilling offshore, in ANWR, and in shale oil reserves, according to the latest IBD/TIPP poll.
“This is not a geological problem — it’s a political problem,” said Dan Kish, senior vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research. “We’ve embargoed our own supplies.”