20 Billion Barrels of Oil Were Not Discovered in the Permian Basin

Mon, Nov 28, 2016 - 9:33am

Some readers may have noticed that I haven’t been posting as many articles here as I have in the past, but it’s simply because I am busy keeping up with deadlines elsewhere. I have an article due once a week for Forbes, and two weekly articles and one longer bi-weekly article for Investing Daily. Add to that occasional articles I do for other sites, and I am writing around 200 articles a year with firm deadlines. On top of that, I have a regular day job as an engineer, and this year has been exceptionally busy.

This column doesn’t have a firm deadline. It’s a place I can write when everything else is caught up. But lately those other commitments have been taking up most of my spare time, and I have been lucky to get one column posted a month here. So, that’s the reason my posting frequency here has declined.

I have had some people tell me that they don’t like dealing with the ads on the Forbes site, and they have asked if I could repost some of my Forbes articles here. I am allowed to do that after they have appeared exclusively at Forbes for a few days. So today, I want to reproduce a modified version of one that got pretty good traffic at Forbes, and has gotten a lot of attention in the press.

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Earlier this month the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) announced the largest estimate of continuous oil that it has ever assessed. The area assessed is in the Permian Basin, a region that has been producing oil continuously for nearly 100 years. Below I will get into the specifics of what this news means, but the mainstream media mostly interpreted it as CNN did in Mammoth Texas oil discovery biggest ever in USA. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding by CNN of what the news entails.

The Permian Basin lies underneath western Texas and southeastern New Mexico. The geology of the Permian Basin is rich and complex, both horizontally and vertically. The Permian Basin has commercial accumulations of oil and gas in stacked layers, at depths ranging from 1,000 feet to more than 25,000 feet. The greater Permian is made up of several subsidiary basins, the largest of which are the Midland and the Delaware.

The new USGS assessment is for the Wolfcamp shale in the Midland Basin portion of Texas’ Permian Basin. The new USGS survey estimates that there are 20 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil in the Wolfcamp alone. Quoting from the USGS news release:

“The fact that this is the largest assessment of continuous oil we have ever done just goes to show that, even in areas that have produced billions of barrels of oil, there is still the potential to find billions more,” said Walter Guidroz, program coordinator for the USGS Energy Resources Program. “Changes in technology and industry practices can have significant effects on what resources are technically recoverable, and that’s why we continue to perform resource assessments throughout the United States and the world.”

It is important to understand what this assessment actually means. This oil has been assessed as an “undiscovered resource.” This scientific assessment means the forecasters have a certain degree of confidence that the oil is there. For this particular assessment, the 50% confidence level is that there are at least 20 billion barrels there. The study further estimates that there is a 95% chance that there are at least 11 billion barrels there, and a 5% chance that there are at least 31 billion barrels there.

However, the fact that the assessment refers to the “resource” means that they are estimating the technically recoverable oil in place. This says nothing of the economics of recovering this oil. The amount that would be economically worthwhile to recover at prevailing commodity prices — which would be classified as “proved reserves” — will be a smaller subset of the assessed amount. It would even be zero at a sufficiently low oil price. This is merely an attempt by the USGS to estimate the amount of oil that could be extracted over time if cost was not a concern.

But given the history of the Permian Basin, it’s a pretty safe bet that there is still a lot of oil still left to produce there. The Permian Basin began producing oil in 1921. The Texas side of the Permian has already produced nearly 30 billion barrels of crude, as well as 75 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas. Permian crude oil production has more than doubled since 2010 largely as a result of hydraulic fracturing in six low-permeability formations: Spraberry, Wolfcamp, Bone Spring, Glorieta, Yeso and Delaware.

According to the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) most recent Permian Region Drilling Productivity Report, the Permian is presently producing 2 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil and 7.3 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) of natural gas. This accounts for more than 23% of current U.S. crude oil production, and exceeds the combined oil output of the Bakken and the Eagle Ford:


Source: Energy Information Administration

I have heard some characterize this news as a new oil discovery. It is not. This new USGS assessment is merely an attempt to put some framework around how much oil may exist in one of several producing formations within the Permian.

But to the critics that would hand wave this assessment away as much ado about nothing, I would remind them that the Permian has seen oil production more than double in the past six years. That is significant. There is also still a lot of oil to be produced there. So while you are on solid ground when correcting anyone who calls this a new discovery, you shouldn’t underestimate the Permian Basin.

About the Author

Director of Alternative-Fuels Technology