The oil reserve fallacy 6

By Bill Kovarik, PhD
(First published in 2002). proved.versus2

  1. Middle Eastern oil in perspective 
  2. Comparison of USGS and oil industry reserve estimates
  3. Unconventional oil reserves
  4. World media has one view of oil reserves
  5. World oil reserve figures vary considerably in history
  6. Conclusion and References

Conclusion and Bibliography

As we have seen, there is far more oil in the rest of the world than there is in Middle East. If the Veneuelans are right, there is enough oil in Venezuela alone to power the world for 44 years (at 27.3 billion barrels of world consuption per year). Similar or greater reserves exist in the Athabasca tar sands and other unconventional reserves that push actual world reserve life well out into the 22nd century. These are not as cheap as Middle Eastern reserves, but they are not prohibitively expensive either. True, not all of the unconventional oil can be recovered. Estimates range from 15 percent upwards. And there may be a number of these unconventional oil fields in other nations that have not been publicly characterized. For example,Russia and Madagascar may also have heavy oil fields.

The argument here is that it is a fallacy to entirely omit unconventional oil from strategic thinking.

The premise for US involvement in the Arab Middle East — its oil wealth — is not wrong per se. However, the idea that the Middle East is the ONLY area of the world with large oil reserves, or that US involvement is inevitable, is, rather plainly, a fallacy of staggering proportions. And the possibility of reducing the influence of oil as the center of gravity in Middle Eastern politics is, by any measure, something worth considering.

Certain conclusions may be drawn:

First, to the extent that oil reserves are a factor in Middle Eastern politics, it would be possible to greatly reduce the stakes and open some avenues to peace. US and European disengagement from oil dependency on the Middle East is not at all impossible, nor does it depend on renewable, nuclear or other alternative energy technologies with varying degrees of reliability.

Secondly, it’s going to be a long time before we run out of oil. There is plenty of it in Venezuela, Canada, Russia and other parts of the world. At current consumption rates, oil reserve life will be measured in centuries. As consumers we may see this as good news. Whatever happens in the Middle East, there will be plenty of oil in the end. As people concerned about the environment, we may see it as very bad news. Oil will remain cheap for a long time, which may be long enough for serious damage from climate change. (Note: for more information on the science of climate change, see For more information on the oil industry’s influence over climate debate, see: “The Heat is On“).

Third, misinformation about future oil supply is something the media and the government have a responsibility to correct. Although the oil industry only publishes proven reserves, and this is misleading, the oil industry is also attempting to maximize protifs. It is up to the public service entities to correct this problem in the marketplace.

Finally, the “invisible hand” of the marketplace will not come to our rescue. Energy, is in the end, a political matter. We will have to rely on government, not market forecasts of oil scarcity, for limits to environmental damage and politically destabilizing dependencies.


  • American Association of Petroleum Geologists 2003 conference included a session on heavy oils.
  • M.A. Adelman, The Genie out of the Bottle: World Oil since 1970, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995). Adelman’s basic argument is that economic factors limit (and thus, may also expand) reserve estimates.
  • Ignacio Arcaya,(2001) Ambassador of Venezuela to the United States of America, “Venezuela and the United States: A Four-Pillar Strategy for Energy Security,” Remarks to theBusiness Council for International Understanding Petroleum Club of Houston Houston, Texas Ð July 24, 2001
  • Association for the Study of Peak Oil — Dr. Colin Campbell:”Understanding [oil] depletion is simple. Think of an Irish pub. The glass starts full and ends empty. There are only so many more drinks to closing time. It’s the same with oil. We have to find the bar before we can drink what’s in it.”
    • ( My comment: Think of a street full of Irish pubs where the price keeps going up because the proprieters claim to be running out of beer. You can see for yourself, they say, the shelf is almost empty. The Ministry for Pubs says its worried and gives the pubs a depletion allowance and other tax breaks. Invasions of other nations with beer making capability are seen as necessary, but politicians promise they will eventually ease our dependence on beer and promote cola drinks just as soon as the beer runs out. What you don’t know is that there is a huge stockpile of beer barrels in the warehouse across town.)
  • Athabasca Oil Sands SchoolNet Digital Collections program, Industry Canada — Photos, history, timeline of Canada’s tar sands reserves.
  • Colin Campbell and John H. Laherrere, “The End of Cheap Oil,” Scientific American magazine March 1998. Discoveries of new supplies of oil are declining and oil production will most likely peak in the first decade of the 21st century, leading to higher oil prices and more reliance on the Middle East for our energy supplies.
    • ( My comment: The idea of inevitable dependence on Mid-East oil is extraordinarily dangerous. )
  • “Too Little Oil for Global Warming,” New Scientist, Oct. 5, 2003. “Oil and gas will run out too fast for doomsday global warming scenarios to materialise, according to a controversial analysis presented this week at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. The authors warn that all the fuel will be burnt before there is enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to realise predictions of melting ice caps and searing temperatures… [Swedish] geologists Anders Sivertsson, Kjell Aleklett and Colin Campbell of Uppsala University say there is not enough oil and gas left for even the most conservative of the 40 IPCC scenarios to come to pass. Although estimates of oil and gas reserves vary widely, the researchers are part of a growing group of experts who believe that oil supplies will peak as soon as 2010, and gas soon after.
    • ( My comment: You have to ignore unconventional oil to even approach this result. )
  • Bauquis, Pierre-Rene, What Future for Extra Heavy Oil and Bitumen, the Orinoco Case, World Energy Council, undated, accessed via Web.
  • Alfred Cavallo, “Oil: The illusion of plenty,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, January/February 2004, Volume 60, No. 1, pp. 20-22, 70 .
    • ( My comment: Where Cavallo goes wrong is in considering only three types of reserve. He doesnt mention a fourth type called “unconventional.” Cavallo says its naive to think oil wont run out. But if you take the USGS bottom line (2272 billion) and add the USGS minimum for unconventional oil (2000 billion) then divide by 27 billion per year consumption, that’s 158 years. — Bill Kovarik )
  • Kennneth S. Deffeyes, Hubbert`s Peak, web site with many links concerning world oil reeserve estimates and production.
  • Charles Hall, Pradeep Tharakan, John Hallock, Cutler Cleveland, and Michael Jefferson, Hydrocarbons and the evolution of human culture, Nature, VOL 426, 20 NOVEMBER 2003. “The world is not about to run out of hydrocarbons, and perhaps it is not going to run out of oil from unconventional sources any time soon. What will be difficult to obtain is cheap petroleum, because what is left is an enormous amount of low-grade hydrocarbons, which are likely to be much more expensive financially, energetically, politically and especially environmentally. As conventional oil becomes less important, society has a great opportunity to make investments in a different source of energy, one freeing us for the first time from our dependence on hydrocarbons. For this task we must use all of our science, both natural science and social science, more intelligently than we have done so far.” (PDF link from Hubbert Peak site).
  • B.F. Grossling, “In Search of a Probabilistic Model of Petroleum Resources Assessment,” in Energy Resources, M.Grenon, Ed., IIASA, 1976
  • Jean Laherre, Forecast of oil and gas supply to 2050, Hydrocarbons Resources, Petrotech 2003, New Delhi (on the web at
  • Charles D. Masters, Emil D. Attanasi, David H. Root, World Petroleum Assessment and Analysis, U.S. Geological Survey, Nov. 28, 2000.
  • R. Nehring, Giant Oil Fields and World Oil Resources, Rand, Santa Monica, June 1978
  • Peter Odell and Kenneth Rosing,(1980) The Future of Oil (London: Kogan Page,, 1980).
  • Peter Odell, Oil and Gas: Crises and Controversies 1961 –2000. Volume 1: Global Issues (Multi-Science Publishing Company, 5, Wates Way, Brentwood, Essex CM15 9TB, UK).
  • Peter Odell, A guide to oil reserves and resources, Greenpeace report on climate change and the arctic, found at and at January 3, 2003. Also see Greenpeace oil reserve report.
  • Peter Odell, Why Carbon Fuels will Dominate the 21st Century’s Global Energy Economy (Multi-Science Publishing Company, 5, Wates Way, Brentwood, Essex CM15 9TB, UK — — Odell says: “Oil supply will likely be more demand than resources constrained – given the demand-side preference for gas for technical and commercial, as well as environmental, reasons. The remaining 2000×109 barrels of recoverable conventional oil resources will sustain over 50% of oil demand until almost 2060. Thereafter non-conventional oil will take the leading role. The latter’s output will peak only in the penultimate decade of the century and by 2100 its resource-base will be little more than half-depleted. In spite of oil’s relative decline as an energy source the industry will, nevertheless, be larger in 2100 than it was in 2000.”
  • Wallace B. Pratt, Vice President, Standard Oil Company (New Jersey), “Our Oil and Natural Gas Reserves,” Chapter V, in ed. Leonard M. Fanning, Our Oil Resources, (New York: McGraw Hill Book Co. Inc., 1945). See esp. p. 123.
  • Uppsula University Hydrocarbon Depletion Study Group — Founded in January 2003, the group has governmental support from the Swedish Energy Agency and industrial support from Lundin Petroleum.
  • US Department of Energy World Crude Oil and Natural Gas Reserves, January 1, 2000. On the web at:, accessed December 2002. These are oil industry studies. Why not use USGS?
  • US Geological Survey World Petroleum Assessment and Analysis, Nov 28 2000. On the web at accessed December 2002.
  • University of South Carolina Conventional Petroleum Reserve and World Petroleum Consumption Tables.
  • Visotsky, VI., et al, Ministry of Geology, Moscow, Petroleum Potential of the Sedimentary Basins in Developing Countries.
  • WEC-CCR, Executive Summaries of World Energy Conference Conservation Commission Report, World Energy Resources, 1985 – 2020, IPC Science and Technology Press, Guildford, pp. 15-16 and pp. 46-47.   


Illustrations are public domain, Library of Congress:  Headers — 1) Monte Cristo oil field, Kern county, CA, 1910;  2)Stereograph showing barrels and buildings at an oil refinery in Erie, Pennsylvania, 1870;  3) San Francisco Oil field, 1909; 4) Oil City, PA, 1864; 5) U.S. Army oil transports, 1918; 6) Unloading pipe from truck at oil well, Seminole oil field, Oklahoma, 1938, Farm Security Administration.