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July 17, 2014

Oil and natural gas resource categories reflect varying degrees of certainty

graph of oil and natural gas resource categories, as explained in the article text
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
Note: Resource categories are not drawn to scale relative to the actual size of each resource category. The graphic shown above is applicable only to oil and natural gas resources.

Crude oil and natural gas resources are the estimated oil and natural gas volumes that might be produced at some time in the future. The volumes of oil and natural gas that ultimately will be produced cannot be known ahead of time. Resource estimates change as extraction technologies improve, as markets evolve, and as oil and natural gas are produced. Consequently, the oil and gas industry, researchers, and government agencies spend considerable time and effort defining and quantifying oil and natural gas resources.

For many purposes, oil and natural gas resources are usefully classified into four categories:

  • Remaining oil and gas in-place (original oil and gas in-place minus cumulative production at a specific date)
  • Technically recoverable resources
  • Economically recoverable resources
  • Proved reserves

The oil and natural gas volumes reported for each resource category are estimates based on a combination of facts and assumptions regarding the geophysical characteristics of the rocks, the fluids trapped within those rocks, the capability of extraction technologies, and the prices received and costs paid to produce oil and natural gas. The uncertainty in estimated volumes declines across the resource categories (see figure above) based on the relative mix of facts and assumptions used to create these resource estimates. Oil and gas in-place estimates are based on fewer facts and more assumptions, while proved reserves are based mostly on facts and fewer assumptions.

Remaining oil and natural gas in-place (original oil and gas in-place minus cumulative production). The volume of oil and natural gas within a formation before the start of production is the original oil and gas in-place. As oil and natural gas are produced, the volumes that remain trapped within the rocks are the remaining oil and gas in-place, which has the largest volume and is the most uncertain of the four resource caetgories.

Technically recoverable resources. The next largest volume resource category is technically recoverable resources, which includes all the oil and gas that can be produced based on current technology, industry practice, and geologic knowledge. As technology develops, as industry practices improve, and as the understanding of the geology increases, the estimated volumes of technically recoverable resources also expand.

The geophysical characteristics of the rock (e.g., resistance to fluid flow) and the physical properties of the hydrocarbons (e.g., viscosity) prevent oil and gas extraction technology from producing 100% of the original oil and gas in-place.

Economically recoverable resources. The portion of technically recoverable resources that can be profitably produced is called economically recoverable oil and gas resources. The volume of economically recoverable resources is determined by both oil and natural gas prices and by the capital and operating costs that would be incurred during production. As oil and gas prices increase or decrease, the volume of the economically recoverable resources increases or decreases, respectively. Similarly, increasing or decreasing capital and operating costs result in econmically recoverable resource volumes shrinking or growing.

U.S. government agencies, including EIA, report estimates of technically recoverable resources (rather than economically recoverable resources) because any particular estimate of economically recoverable resources is tied to a specific set of prices and costs. This makes it difficult to compare estimates made by other parties using different price and cost assumptions. Also, because prices and costs can change over relatively short periods, an estimate of economically recoverable resources that is based on the prevailing prices and costs at a particular time can quickly become obsolete.

Proved reserves. The most certain oil and gas resource category, but with the smallest volume, is proved oil and gas reserves. Proved reserves are volumes of oil and natural gas that geologic and engineering data demonstrate with reasonable certainty to be recoverable in future years from known reservoirs under existing economic and operating conditions. Proved reserves generally increase when new production wells are drilled and decrease when existing wells are produced. Like economically recoverable resources, proved reserves shrink or grow as prices and costs change. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission regulates the reporting of company financial assets, including those proved oil and gas reserve assets reported by public oil and gas companies.

Each year EIA updates its report of proved U.S. oil and natural gas reserves and its estimates of unproved technically recoverable resources for shale gas, tight gas, and tight oil resources. These reserve and resource estimates are used in developing EIA's Annual Energy Outlook projections for oil and natural gas production.

  • Unproved technically recoverable oil and gas resource estimates are reported in EIA’s Assumptions report of the Annual Energy Outlook. Unproved technically recoverable oil and gas resources equal total technically recoverable resources minus the proved oil and gas reserves.

Over time, oil and natural gas resource volumes are reclassified, going from one resource category into another category, as production technology develops and markets evolve.

Additional information regarding oil and natural gas resource categorization is available from the Society of Petroleum Engineers and the United Nations.

Principal contributors: Philip Budzik, Michael Ford