Could We Unlock More Than 267 Billion Barrels of Oil in America?

If Core Laboratories can deliver on their development to increase oil recovery rates from tight oil, then we could be looking at enough oil to supply America for decades.

Jul 30, 2014 at 5:34PM
Wpx Rig

Photo credit: WPX Energy

If I had told you five or six years ago that America would be producing more oil than ever before and potentially becoming an exporter of crude within a decade, you probably would have had me institutionalized. Yet thanks to the advancements in drilling techniques, we have been able to access one of the most abundant resources we didn't think possible: shale and tight oil. Today, oil production from these sources totals 4.6 million barrels per day and represents about half of our oil output.

What makes this story even more compelling, though, is the future ahead. Core Laboratories, a provider of oil and gas production technology, believes that some of the advancements it is working on could unlock hundreds of billions of barrels of more oil from shale. How is this possible? Let's take a look at how Core's work in shale could potentially lead to America becoming the worlds largest source of oil.

Going that extra 2% goes a long, long way
One of the things that many people don't understand about shale resources is that they are very, very hard to access. Despite the immense success that we have had extracting these resources over the past several years, we are only scratching the surface of these resources. According to Schlumberger research scientist Robert Kleinberg, we are only presently able to access 5% of the oil and gas available in these new resources, and based on the estimates from several companies working in some of America's top shale plays, even getting to a 5% recovery factor would be huge.

Shale play Estimated recoverable oil (barrels of oil) Current oil recovery factor in region
Permian Basin (multiple formations) 75 billion barrels 3.5%
Bakken/Three Forks 31.5 billion barrels 3.5%
Eagle Ford 26 billion barrels  6%
Niobrara 7 billion barrels 1.4% 

Sources: Pioneer Natural Resources, Approach Resources, EOG Resources, and Continental Resources investor presentations, Oil & Gas Journal

Think about that for a second. The amounts of oil these companies are estimating are absolutely massive, but they assume that we leave upward of 95% of the oil from these resources still in the ground. Using these recoverable resources and recovery factors as a rough guide, that means that the total oil in the ground in shale looks something like this:

Shale Play Estimated Oil-in-Place (barrels of oil)
Permian Basin (multiple formations) 2,142 billion 
Bakken/ Three Forks 900 billion 
Eagle Ford 530 billion 
Niobrara 500 billion 

Source: Continental Resources & Pioneer Natural Resources Investor Presentations, and Oil & Gas Journal

There are multiple reasons why the oil recovery factors are so low for shale, but one simple reason is that we haven't been working with them very long to completely figure them out. Shale and tight oil have been a commercial success for less than a decade, while we have had over a hundred years to figure out conventional oil reservoirs. This is where Core Labs comes in. On the company's most recent conference call, CEO David Demshur said that the company is looking at ways of increasing oil recovery factors in the Eagle Ford and Bakken shale formations into the low teens. Based on where oil recovery is today for these formations, that is an additional 94 billion barrels of oil from just those two formations alone.

More importantly, though, is the potential impact that a move like this could have on all shale formations across the U.S. If oil recovery factors in shale could be increased to greater than 10%, then several prospective areas not currently economical could be attainable. For example, the Monterey shale in California is estimated to have 500 billion barrels of oil in place, but the geology is so complex that only a small portion of the oil in place -- about 0.12% -- is considered recoverable. If we could increase recovery factors. Increasing oil recovery there might not make all of it attainable, but it could certainly make a larger portion of that oil in place accessible. 

Just to give you an idea of this level of potential, let's use the four major shale plays from above. If we were to increase oil recovery factors to just 10%, then the estimated recoverable resources would look a little something like this:

Shale Play Estimated recoverable resource using current recovery factors above (barrels of oil) Estimated recoverable resource using 10% oil recovery rate (barrels of oil)
Permian Basin (multiple formations) 75 billion 214.2 billion
Bakken/ Three Forks 31.5 billion 90 billion
Eagle Ford 26 billion 53 billion
Niobrara 7 billion 50 billion
Total  139.5 billion 407.2 billion

That's more than 267 billion barrels from just these four formations alone! If the economic conditions were right and these barrels of oil were to become proven reserves, we would have more reserves than Saudi Arabia. 

What a Fool believes
So far, the U.S. shale revolution has been a revelation. We are on the verge of producing more oil per day than in any other time in our history, and we are at a point where exporting oil to the world is a very real prospect. What is even more amazing, as these numbers show above, is that we barely have tapped the full potential of shale oil. It's highly unlikely that we will ever be able to recover shale and tight oil at the rate we can in conventional reservoirs -- about 50% today -- because of the specific nature of these geological formations, but even getting to 10% like Core Labs believes is possible would be a massive development for every company involved in oil and gas exploration and production and could drastically improve America's position in the global oil market.

Tyler Crowe owns shares of Core Laboratories. You can follow him at Fool.com under the handle TMFDirtyBird, on Google+, or on Twitter @TylerCroweFool.

The Motley Fool recommends Core Laboratories. The Motley Fool owns shares of Core Laboratories. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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