By Jim Ostroff
Think the U.S. is running out of oil? Think again.
What is running low, given soaring demand for energy worldwide, is oil in fields that have already been tapped and are in production — in other words, the relatively easy-to-get stuff, which oil companies have proven exists and can get at with current technology. Those reserves are clearly being drained. The U.S. has around 20 billion barrels now, down from nearly 29 billion barrels a decade ago and about half the 1970 peak of 39 billion barrels. But…
The U.S. is sitting on the world’s largest, untapped oil reserves — reservoirs which energy experts know exist, but which have not yet been tapped and may not be attainable with current technology. In fact, such untapped reserves are estimated at about 2.3 trillion barrels, nearly three times more than the reserves held by Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) nations and sufficient to meet 300 years of demand — at today’s levels — for auto, truck, aircraft, heating and industrial fuel, without importing a single barrel of oil.
What’s the problem then? Why aren’t oil companies jumping to pump the black gold?
Contrary to what some conspiracy theorists would have you believe, there is no cabal of oil companies and foreign governments blocking the way, bottling up U.S. oil production. The reality is much more mundane. Those untapped reserves are located in places that either Uncle Sam has put off-limits for environmental reasons or are too costly to get — or a combination of both.
Given current sky-high prices for crude oil and the likelihood that oil prices will remain high — at or above $100 a barrel — for the foreseeable future, it is now economically viable to tap some of those reserves. But environmental concerns — ranging from preservation of pristine lands to worries about increasing the use of fossil fuels and accelerating global climate change — remain a hurdle.
Here’s a look at some of the largest untapped reserves.
- Oil shales: Oil extracted from shale fields represents the mother lode of untapped reserves, at about 1.5 trillion barrels — or 200 years worth of supply at current usage levels. Roughly two-thirds of the U.S.’s oil shale fields in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah are in federally-protected areas and closed to development. In addition, getting the oil out of the rock is a challenge, requiring cooking or chemical treatment of rock located as much as half a mile under the earth’s surface.
To make oil shale production economically worthwhile, crude oil prices must remain above $50 a barrel for a protracted period. Given the outlook for continued high prices, oil companies such as ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell Inc., EGL Resources, Brazil’s Petrobras and others are gearing up pilot projects on nonfederal lands. The potential is to produce 1 million barrels of oil a day within a decade from lands currently open — and several times that amount if the lawmakers give the green light to development of lands now off-limits.
- Tar sands: Around 75 billion barrels of oil could come from tar sands, similar to Canadian fields, which now churn out a million barrels a day. The sands are located predominantly in Utah, Alaska, Texas and California, as well as in Alabama and Kentucky on federal and state lands that, by laws and administrative orders, are closed to mineral and petroleum development.
- The outer continental shelf: Something in the neighborhood of 90 billion barrels of oil sit beneath the ocean bed 50 to 100 miles off the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts. Presidential bans and congressional prohibitions have put the tracts off-limits to oil company exploration at least until 2012, although there’s a chance that Congress may lift the moratorium before then. In recent months, several key policymakers, including GOP presidential candidate John McCain and Florida Governor Charles Crist Jr. (R), have reversed their positions on drilling in the OCS. Crist’s change of mind may signal a new trend. Concern about potential damage to his state’s beaches and Florida’s critical tourism industry had dictated his opposition to drilling off the state’s coasts. But the state’s growing budget woes — and the prospect of capturing some cash from off-shore leasing — is proving alluring.
- The Bakken Play: With up to 100 billion barrels of oil, the reserves locked under rocks buried a mile or more beneath Montana and Saskatchewan, Canada, are more than twice the size of Alaskan’s entire oil cache. New drilling and oil recovery technologies are overcoming production obstacles and petroleum companies are rushing to stake their claims. Marathon Oil recently acquired about 200,000 acres in the area and will drill about 300 oil wells within five years. Brigham Exploration and Crescent Point Energy Trust also want a piece of the action. EOG Resources alone figures it can produce 80 million barrels of oil from its Bakken field. But It will take at least five years before the oil starts flowing in large volumes.
- The Alaska National Wildlife Refuge: About 10 billion barrels of oil are locked away here, with little possibility that federal lawmakers will open the door.
Of course, it isn’t enough to simply get at the oil in these and other U.S. reserves. Providing major new supplies to U.S. consumers also requires a significant jump in refining capacity. But existing environmental regulations and community opposition make it tough to build new refineries. The last new domestic refinery was started up in 1976.
And even if the technology and political will came together to allow oil companies access to the untapped reserves, they’ll be reluctant to do so if the U.S. doesn’t also have the capacity to refine the petroleum produced.