USA: An oil rich nation after all

The President has been traveling on Campaign Tourapalooza 2012 this month and seeking to explain rising oil and gas prices. One of his favorite tag lines has been to say that you “can’t just drill your way to lower gas prices.” (And he’s partly correct there, but more on that later.) But he’s also tossing out another figure when he makes these remarks.

“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.”

So is that actually true? Are we an oil barren nation? As John Merline points out at Investors Business Daily, it’s not even close to being accurate unless you’re really picking and choosing your terms. This is because the figure that Barack Obama is quoting relies on estimates of proved reserves.

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.

Proved reserves is a valuable number to keep track of, no doubt. It gives you a good snapshot of the amount of oil you’re currently tapping into, and that allows you to develop solid estimates of what’s going to be entering the pipeline each season. But by the same token, it’s not any sort of reflection of what your total assets are. That’s like saying that Bill Gates only has $20K of liquid cash in his primary checking account this month so he must be close to filing for bankruptcy. Here’s a more complete picture for you:

Oil Scarcity

  • At least 86 billion barrels of oil in the Outer Continental Shelf yet to be discovered
  • 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
  • Up to 12 billion barrels in ANWR, according to the USGS.
  • As much as 19 billion barrels in the Utah tar sands
  • A stunning 1.4 trillion barrels of oil shale the massive Green River Formation in Wyoming

The main problem is that most of these resources are roped off. Just knowing the oil is there comes as little comfort if there are never going to be any leases issued by the government for energy companies to explore. And our ability to access the shale oil – while technically well withing our capability today – will be significantly hamstrung as long as activists continue to fight fracking and horizontal drilling.

But before we get too carried away, it’s still worth noting that one part of Obama’s claims is actually true. Even if we opened the floodgates and were able to jack up our domestic production by 20% overnight, it wouldn’t do much to move the needle on gas and oil prices in general. That’s because, as we’ve noted before, the idea of “energy independence” is something of a misnomer. Energy is traded on a global market, not compartmentalized by nation. When we produce more than we need, the rest is immediately sold as exports with few exceptions. When we don’t produce as much, we import more. It’s just the way the free market works.

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