The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Drilling Down Into The Oil Reserves Numbers

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted June 1, 2011

You've probably heard the line: The United States holds 2 percent of the world's oil reserves but consumes 25 percent of the world's oil. It's boilerplate rhetoric for folks who'd like Americans to think the United States is both running out of its own oil and using too much of everyone else's. President Obama has used this misleading line in two major policy speeches recently (here and here), and others have followed suit.

Let's focus on the first point. The 2 percent stat lacks context and a false impression results. The figure refers to "proved" reserves - that is, an official classification of oil "that has been discovered (and) is economically and commercially viable," says API's Marcus Koblitz. The McKelvey Diagram below illustrates how narrow the definition is:

McKelvey Diagram

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski discusses further in a Washington Post op-ed:

"In truth, 'reserves' is just one of several categories used to quantify oil and, on its own, misrepresents America's potential. To classify a barrel as a reserve, you have to drill, prove the oil is there, and meet strict criteria established by the Securities and Exchange Commission. It's not an easy process."

The chief problem is in using the 2 percent figure by itself - without also mentioning that the United States has billions and billions of barrels of oil that's off limits by federal policy, classified as undiscovered, technically recoverable resources (UTRR) and not counted with the proved reserve. That's more than 116 billion barrels of UTRR oil on federal lands, according to government estimates.

Takeaway point: You can't talk accurately about U.S. oil reserves without also noting that there are other, vast repositories of oil that can be accessed. Here's API Chief Economist John Felmy on video, discussing the irrelevancy of the 2 percent figure:

Here's another way we know that "undiscovered" oil is there: Even though the United States consumes billions of barrels of crude oil a year (5.34 billion last year from domestic and imported sources), the statistic for the country's proved reserves hardly changes from year to year. In fact, the Energy Information Administration reports that between 2008 and 2009 proved reserves actually increased. Murkowski puts it another way: "While our nation's oil 'reserves' have never reached 40 billion barrels, we've managed to produce nearly 200 billion barrels since 1900."

That's because new oil sources are discovered and come on line. For example, there's been lots of news recently about the Texas oil shale formation known as Eagle Ford. The New York Times reports the field is one of about 20 new onshore fields that some say could collectively increase U.S. oil output by 25 percent within a decade. "It's the one thing we have seen in our adult lives that could take us away from imported oil," Chesapeake Energy's Aubrey McClendon tells the Times. "What if we have found three of the world's biggest oil fields in the last three years right here in the U.S.? How transformative could that be for the U.S. economy?"

The answer: hugely transformative. Accessing oil that's right here at home would have tremendous impact on jobs, economic growth and energy security.


Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.