Sunday, March 23, 2008

Saturday Quiz: How much oil does Iraq have?

How much oil does Iraq have?

Answer: It depends on who's doing the estimating. According to the Brookings Institute:

Over the past several months, news organizations and experts have regularly cited Department of Energy (DOE) Energy Information Administration (EIA) figures claiming that the territory of Iraq contains over 112 billion barrels (bbl) of proven reserves—oil that has been definitively discovered and is expected to be economically producible.

In addition, since Iraq is the least explored of the oil-rich countries, there have been numerous claims of huge undiscovered reserves there as well—oil thought to exist, and expected to become economically recoverable—to the tune of hundreds of billions of barrels. The respected Petroleum Economist Magazine estimates that there may be as many as 200 bbl of oil in Iraq; the Federation of American Scientists estimates 215 bbl; a study by the Council on Foreign Relations and the James A. Baker III Institute at Rice University claimed that Iraq has 220 bbl of undiscovered oil; and another study by the Center for Global Energy Studies and Petrolog & Associates offered an even more optimistic estimate of 300 bbl—a number that would give Iraq reserves greater even than those of Saudi Arabia.

It is particularly important to verify the estimates of Iraqi reserves since the DOE figures stand in contrast to those of an equally reputable U.S. government organization. In its 2000 World Petroleum Assessment, the Department of the Interior's U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) presented figures based on extensive geologic studies by a team of more than 40 geoscientists claiming that, as of the end of 1995, Iraq had 100 bbl of proven reserves, of which 22 bbl had already been recovered. Hence, according to the USGS, Iraq's current proven reserves amount to only 78 bbl—only two-thirds of the DOE's more commonly accepted 112 bbl estimate.

When it comes to assessing Iraq's undiscovered reserves, the differences between the DOE and the USGS becomes even starker. According to the USGS—which is hardly a Chicken Little when it comes to reserve predictions—there is a 95 percent probability that Iraq has at least 14 bbl, a 50 percent probability that it has at least 45 bbl, but only a 5 percent probability that it has 84 bbl of undiscovered reserves. This means that the probability that Iraq has 200 bbl or 300 bbl, as so many of the reports have suggested, is, according to USGS calculations, close to nil.

We will be exploring some larger issues of oil supply and demand next week, so stay tuned.

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