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The Permian Basin, America’s largest, most productive oil basin, is estimated to hold 71 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
But experts say geological estimates are constantly changing. Just because oil is technically recoverable does not mean it will be recovered. What matters more, experts say, is whether the price of oil would make that extraction profitable.
Even if 71 billion barrels were immediately recoverable, the U.S. would consume that amount of oil in about 10 years.
Does America possess enough oil in 86,000 square miles to fuel the nation for two centuries?
Sounds like a pipe(line) dream, but according to a viral image on Facebook, a "small area" in western Texas and southeastern New Mexico "has enough oil to fuel America for the next 200 years."
The post is correct that the shaded area of the map, known as the Permian Basin, has large quantities of oil and natural gas. But current estimates don’t add up to a 200-year supply, and dynamic economic and geological factors make long-term predictions nearly impossible.
(Screenshot of image shared on Facebook)
The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
With oil prices peaking at $130 a barrel in March 2022, and Americans having recently paid over $5 per gallon at the pump, America’s energy resources have been a focus for politicians and citizens alike. The Permian Basin, which produces over 5 million barrels of oil a day, according to the U.S. Energy Administration, seems like a promising supply.
The wealth of America’s most productive and largest oil basin lies in deep layers of shale deposits that have become accessible in the last two decades with the rise in horizontal fracking. Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, involves drilling deep into the earth, first vertically and then horizontally, along layers of oil-rich rock. Pressurized water and chemicals are then pumped deep into the well, creating fractures through which oil and gas can escape.
The Permian, which is broken into regions, is routinely assessed by the U.S. Geological Survey. The USGS measures "technically recoverable" resources — "oil and/or gas (that) can be produced using currently available technology and industry practices," regardless of economic or accessibility factors.
In 2018, the survey estimated there were 46.3 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable continuous oil in the Permian’s Delaware Basin; the estimate, at the time, doubled proven reserves. Estimates from the Midland Basin and Spraberry Formation add another 24.2 billion barrels to the region’s reserves, and a 2007 assessment identified 747 million barrels that could be recovered with conventional drilling.
This abundance of natural resources rivals the famed oil fields of the Middle East, according to Bloomberg News.
But experts warn that assessing the natural resources beneath our feet is not simple. "A resource assessment like those from USGS is not an estimate of how much oil will ultimately be produced. It is an estimate of what is technically recoverable, and it has a wide range of uncertainty around it," said Kenneth Medlock, senior director of the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University.
Additionally, assessments are constantly being updated and revised. "The underground is as living as the human eye. It's a very organic space," said Deborah Gordon, who leads the Oil and Gas Solutions Initiative at the Rocky Mountain Institute. Estimates are not definitives or absolutes, but rather a snapshot of the current moment. "It's almost like having a doctor say, ‘I'm healthy today, but that doesn't mean I'm healthy tomorrow.’"
And just because oil is technically recoverable does not mean it will be recovered. What matters more, experts say, is whether the oil is economically recoverable — meaning that the price of oil would render that extraction profitable.
"Never is all of the oil extracted from any basin because economically, it is not feasible," Medlock said. "That is why wells are plugged – they get too costly to continue producing."
Constantly shifting economic factors — including the cost of production, price of oil and technological developments — dictate how much oil is produced, Gordon said, not the sheer availability of resources: "The big question is, what's the future price of oil and gas?" And, she said, will it allow the Permian’s carbon bounty to remain economically recoverable?
Even if we were to factor out the complexity of fluctuating estimates, changing economic conditions and advancing technology, the numbers still don’t add up to what is claimed in this Facebook post.
According to the Energy Information Administration, the U.S. consumed 7.22 billion barrels of petroleum in 2021. Continuing at that rate of consumption, the estimated 71 billion barrels would last only 10 years. A 200-year supply would require closer to 1.45 trillion barrels — far beyond current estimates for the region.
"It is highly unlikely that the Permian Basin will be able to provide all of America’s oil at any point in time," said Medlock. "But it is true that the Permian Basin will be an important source of oil for the U.S. and the world market balance for the foreseeable future ... 200 years? That is anybody’s guess."
An image on Facebook claimed that a "small area" in western Texas and southeastern New Mexico "has enough oil to fuel America for the next 200 years."
The Permian Basin is indeed a large and valuable source of domestic oil and natural gas. But based on the latest geological assessments and U.S. energy consumption, estimated oil in the Permian would not last Americans 200 years.
We rate this claim False.
Interview with Deborah Gordon, senior principal in the Climate Intelligence Program at the Rocky Mountain Institute, July 20, 2022
Interview with Christopher J Schenk, Research geologist with the Central Energy Resources Science Center at the U.S. Geological Survey, July 27, 2022
Email interview with Kenneth Medlock, Senior Director for the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University, July 20, 2022
U.S. Energy Information Administration, "Weekly U.S. Regular All Formulations Retail Gasoline Prices," accessed July 26, 2022
U.S. Energy Information Administration, "Drilling Productivity Report," July 2022
U.S. Energy Information Administration, "How much oil is consumed in the United States?" March 9, 2022
U.S. Energy Information Administration, "Permian Region Drilling Productivity Report," July 2022
U.S. Energy Information Administration, "What countries are the top producers and consumers of oil?" May 10, 2022
U.S. Geological Survey, "Assessment of undiscovered continuous oil resources in the Wolfcamp shale of the Midland Basin, Permian Basin Province, Texas," November 2016
U.S. Geological Survey, "Assessment of Undiscovered Oil and Gas Resources in the Spraberry Formation of the Midland Basin, Permian Basin Province, Texas," May 2017
U.S. Geological Survey, "What are "technically recoverable" oil and gas resources?" accessed July 26, 2022
U.S. Geological Survey, "Assessment of Undiscovered Continuous Oil and Gas Resources in the Wolfcamp Shale and Bone Spring Formation of the Delaware Basin, Permian Basin, Province, New Mexico and Texas," December 2018
U.S. Geological Survey, "Assessment of Undiscovered Oil and Gas Resources of the Permian Basin Province of West Texas and Southeast New Mexico," February 2008
Britannica, "Permian Basin," May 25 2015
Wall Street Journal, "Oil Tops $130 a Barrel as Russian Attacks Escalate," March 6, 2022
Wall Street Journal, "How the Permian Basin Became North America's Hottest Oilfield," June 28, 2019
Forbes, "America's Oil And Gas Reserves Double With Massive New Permian Discovery," Dec. 21, 2018
Forbes, "The King Of Shale Oil, The Permian Basin, Is Still Riding The Wave," March 30, 2022
Bloomberg, "Why the Global Oil Market Hinges on Five US Counties," March 24, 2022
NPR, "USGS Announces Largest Oil And Gas Deposit Ever Assessed In U.S," Nov. 16, 2016
The New York Times, "The ‘monster’ Texas oil field that made the U.S. a star in the world market," Feb. 3, 2019
TED-Ed, "How does fracking work?" July 13, 2017
Weather.com, "Texas, New Mexico oil and gas reserves are largest ever assessed, bringing economic hope, environmental concern" Dec. 19, 2018
USA Today, "Fact check: False claim that Permian Basin oil supply would fuel America for 200 years," July 21, 2022
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