CD8 Debate: Does the U.S. Really Have More Oil Than Saudi Arabia?



Here's Arizona Public Media's Congressional District 8 debate, featuring the four Republicans who want to complete Gabrielle Giffords' term: 2010 nominee Jesse Kelly, state Sen. Frank Antenori, marketing businessman and sports broadcaster Dave Sitton and former fighter pilot Martha McSally. (If you want to know more about them, check out this week's feature story.)

I didn't see any game-changers last night. As they have in earlier debates, the candidates essentially agreed with one another one most issues, although McSally and Sitton said they'd still seek earmarks for Southern Arizona, while Antenori and Kelly said they would not. And Kelly is sticking with a double-layer fence along the entire border, while the other three said that it doesn't make sense in areas where the terrain doesn't lend itself to fencing.

I thought the whopper of the night came from Kelly, who declared: "We have more oil in this country than in Saudi Arabia."

If you're going by proven reserves of oil, that's a pretty tall tale. Take a look at this chart from Wikipedia:

  • Wikipedia

But Kelly was sticking by his assertion today.

"We have more oil than Saudi Arabia and we should develop it as soon as possible to lower gas prices," Kelly said via email.

Kelly cited a Fox News story that included this assertion:

In almost every energy speech, President Obama makes this statement: "We've got 2 percent of the world oil reserves. We use 20 percent."

But there's more to those numbers than meet the eye.

"It's accurate but extremely misleading," says Dan Kish of Institute for Energy Research, which is supported by the industry. "What he is talking about is oil we already have found."

Misleading, he argues, because the president is pointing to "proven" reserves, which is some 21 billion barrels, but the U.S. is sitting on vast reserves of untapped energy that are far greater.

One federal agency says there's 10 times more — 219 billion barrels more — in what is called "technically recoverable" energy.

Another agency in the Energy Department says there's 20 times that much, or 400 billion barrels more, and some in the industry claim there's 60 times that amount, meaning some 1.4 trillion barrels in untapped resources.

That's energy the government knows we have but that has not yet been drilled for. Industry experts argue it's there for the taking.

"The trillion-plus barrels of oil in this country, more oil than in Saudi Arabia, is not counted by the president, and I think that's misleading the American people," John Hofmeister, the former president of Shell Oil, said.

Politifact isn't buying that story:

In an earlier PolitiFact item on this subject, we noted a Congressional Research Service report that offered some broad principles for judging how easy or hard it is to extract natural resources.

"It is important to keep in mind that naturally occurring deposits of any material, whether it is fossil fuels, gold, or timber, comprise a broad spectrum of concentration, quality, and accessibility (geologic, technical, and cultural)," CRS wrote. The report’s authors suggested visualizing this notion as a pyramid — a small amount of easily recoverable resources at the top, with increasingly large deposits that are more and more difficult to extract toward the base of the pyramid.

Oil shale is somewhere toward the bottom of the pyramid, making it more susceptible to technological and cost concerns.

The RAND report’s lead author, James T. Bartis, told us it's difficult and costly to extract the oil from shale because "the heating process is expensive, since the temperature needs to be raised to over 650 degrees Fahrenheit, as compared to about 200 degrees Fahrenheit for the Canadian tar sands," another non-traditional source that’s been expanding rapidly in recent years.

"At this time, no firm with the technical, management, and financial resources needed to develop this resource has stepped forward and stated that they are prepared to build a commercial production facility, though such firms, and others, are actively engaged in developing the necessary technology."

The comparison isn’t apples to apples

The U.S. side of the comparison is based on "potentially recoverable reserves," whereas the Saudi side of the comparison is based on "proven reserves." Those are two very different measures.

"Proven reserves," according to CRS, refers to estimates made with "reasonable certainty" to be "commercially recoverable" under current economic and governmental conditions. According to data from the Energy Information Adminstration, a federal agency, Saudi Arabia has 13 times the amount of proven reserves as the U.S. does. These numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt, due to imperfect estimation techniques and old or unreliable data. (Countries, for instance, have an incentive to exaggerate their holdings.) Still, at least this comparison is as close as one gets to apples to apples in the petroleum estimation business.

Assuming one uses a consistent methodology, it would also be valid to compare potentially recoverable reserves in both nations, although the numbers available are even more speculative than they are for proven reserves, especially for the Saudi side of the equation. "I have no basis for estimating Saudi Arabia’s potentially recoverable resource base," Bartis said.

The estimate of potentially recoverable resources in the U.S. is also subject to some debate. CRS, for instance, said that "the uncertainty associated with estimates of those deposits is too great to produce meaningful comparisons. … The final tally would have very little meaning considering the difficulties in estimating those resources." Also unknown is how much of an environmental cost there would be to extraction, or how much government investment would be necessary if the industry considered it uneconomical on its own terms.

Snopes has more on the development of the U.S.-has-more-oil-than-Saudi-Arabia storyline here.

Bottom line for The Range: If you're going by proven reserves, Saudi Arabia has more oil than the United States. If you're comparing Saudi Arabia's proven reserves with potential reserves in the United States that might someday be recoverable if you developed the right technology, then the U.S. might have more—but that's only if you don't apply the same standard of advanced technology to the Saudi oil fields.

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