The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Big Numbers: Our Energy Inventory

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted December 6, 2011

Some eye-opening energy numbers from the Institute for Energy Research's new North American Energy Inventory:

  • Together, the U.S., Canada and Mexico have nearly 1.8 trillion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil - oil likely to exist based on geologic characteristics that can be extracted with current technologies.
  • North America has 4.244 quadrillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas - enough to fuel homes heated by gas in the U.S. for 857 years.
  • North America has 497 billion short tons of recoverable coal, more than any other country in the world.

What do these numbers mean? We're an energy-rich country, and partnered with Canada and Mexico, a member of an energy-rich zone.

The numbers also contradict rhetoric often heard about these energy sources - for example, that the United States has relatively small oil reserves, uses more than its share of the world's oil and shouldn't factor oil into the country's long-term plan. President Obama earlier this year:

"I give out this statistic all the time, and forgive me for repeating it again: America holds about 2 percent of the world's proven oil reserves. What that means is, is that even if we drilled every drop of oil out of every single one of the reserves that we possess - offshore and onshore - it still wouldn't be enough to meet our long-term needs. We consume about 25 percent of the world's oil. We only have 2 percent of the reserves. Even if we doubled U.S. oil production, we're still really short."

IER's findings, based on information from government, industry and the academic world, suggest that argument is flawed:

"In 1980, official estimates of proved oil reserves in the United States stood at roughly 30 billion barrels. Yet over the past 30 years, more than 77 billion barrels of oil have been produced here. In other words, over the last 30 years, the United States produced more than two and a half times the proved reserves we thought we had available in 1980."

Developing the widest possible energy portfolio - including wind, solar, nuclear, coal, biofuels and others - certainly makes sense. But the portfolio should include oil and natural gas, because contrary to the rhetoric, America is blessed with lots of each. Energy security is to be found in an all-of-the-above approach, and the size of these oil and gas reserves strongly argues for their inclusion in a forward-looking energy strategy.

This report is an important data point in the ongoing national energy discussion. America's oil and natural gas companies welcome a debate over new policies that would increase access to these resources - access that the Wood Mackenzie consulting firm says could lead to more than 4 million additional barrels worth of oil and natural gas per day, more than 1 million new U.S. jobs and more than $127 billion in additional revenue to government, all by 2020. Once more, from IER's report:

"This massive supply of available resources means that North America's access to affordable energy is limited only by the government policies we choose to adopt."


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.