Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy.
The geographical imbalance in oil reserves is similar to production. From a long-term perspective, OPEC countries account for most oil reserves. Saudi Arabia alone had about 25% of the world’s oil reserves until recently. Still, changes in the evaluation of oil reserves have tremendously increased the share of Venezuelan and Canadian reserves. Due to increased oil prices and improved extraction technologies, Canadian tar sands have become economically recoverable, thus being counted as official reserves. Questions remain about to what extent these reserves are economically recoverable. If a cost-effective way is set, this will go a long way to extend the availability of petroleum on global markets. Furthermore, it may take a long time at the current consumption level for OPEC to run out of oil reserves. In recent years, the United States has also experienced a substantial increase in its reserves due to the inclusion of shale oil. No European country, except Norway, has significant oil reserves.
There is controversy concerning the true extent of oil reserves, especially in the Middle East. OPEC countries may have vastly overstated their reserves, mainly because production quotas are based upon estimated reserves. This means that the larger its reserves, the more an OPEC country can export oil. Kuwait is a good example of this issue, as it reported a gradual decline in its reserves in the early 1980s. This was expected since the Kuwaiti oil industry can be considered as mature. However, in 1985 the country reported a 50% increase in its reserves without any new discovery, a strategy solely designed to increase its export quotas. Kuwait was not alone in increasing its reserves for quota reasons. In 1988, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, and Iraq all significantly increased their reported reserves for the same reasons. Even Saudi Arabia followed and reported a massive increase in its reserves in 1990. However, as world demand gradually increased, quota issues became less relevant.
There are concerns about the high concentration of reserves in Saudi Arabia and the “creative accounting” estimates of oil reserves. 95% of Saudi oil comes from six major fields discovered between 1940 and 1967. The Ghawar field alone produces 60% of this total. It was discovered in 1948 and put into production in 1951. By 2009, it produced 5 million barrels per day, but large amounts of water needed to be injected to maintain the field’s output. As such, this field is likely to be at the end of its production cycle, and its output may decline substantially in the coming years.