Image: PR Newswire/AP

An estimated 20 billion barrels of oil valued at up to $900 billion has been discovered in a West Texan shale formation, the US Geological Survey announced this week. Three times the size of the Bakken oilfields in North Dakota, it could be the largest such deposit ever assessed in the United States.

Map of the newly discovered oil reserves in the Midland Basin’s Wolfcamp Shale. Image: US Geological Survey

The USGS has released a new assessment of oil reserves located in the Wolfcamp shale in West Texas’ Permian Basin, one of the most productive areas for oil and gas extraction in the United States. In addition to a whopping 20 billion barrels of oil, the shale is steeped in an estimated 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and another 1.6 billion barrels of natural gas liquids.

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The estimate consists of “undiscovered and technically recoverable” resources of “continuous” oil and gas. Understanding all of this jargon is key. Undiscovered resources are estimated based on existing geologic knowledge and theory, meaning the exact amount of oil and gas in the Wolfcamp shale could be larger or smaller. Technically recoverable resources are those that can in theory be produced using current technology and industry standard practices. Finally, continuous resources are dispersed in small amounts throughout a basin rather than large, discrete deposits. “Because of that, continuous resources commonly require special technical drilling and recovery methods, such as hydraulic fracturing,” the USGS writes. (According to The Guardian, fracking is already common practice at the more than 3,000 horizontal oil wells located in the Wolfcamp region.)

Importantly, the USGS has not determined whether it is profitable to exploit all or even most of this vast new oil reserve. But given the numbers and dollar signs attached to its discovery, it is difficult to imagine that our incoming, oil-friendly administration will not try. In the disturbingly prescient words Sarah Palin, get ready to drill, baby, drill.

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[USGS via The Guardian]