Petroleum, complex mixture of hydrocarbons that occur in the Earth in liquid, gaseous, or solid forms. The term is often restricted to the liquid form, commonly called crude oil, but as a technical term it also includes natural gas and the viscous or solid form known as bitumen, which is found in tar sands. The liquid and gaseous phases of petroleum constitute the most important of the primary fossil fuels. Liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons are so intimately associated in nature that it has become customary to shorten the expression “petroleum and natural gas” to “petroleum” when referring to both. The word petroleum (literally “rock oil” from the Latin petra, “rock” or “stone,” and oleum, “oil”) was first used in 1556 in a treatise published by the German mineralogist Georg Bauer, known as Georgius Agricola.

History of use

Exploitation of surface seeps

Small surface occurrences of petroleum in the form of natural gas and oil seeps have been known from early times. The ancient Sumerians, Assyrians, and Babylonians used crude oil and asphalt (“pitch”) collected from large seeps at Tuttul (modern-day Hīt) on the Euphrates for many purposes more than 5,000 years ago. Liquid oil was first used as a medicine by the ancient Egyptians, presumably as a wound dressing, liniment, and laxative.

Oil products were valued as weapons of war in the ancient world. The Persians used incendiary arrows wrapped in oil-soaked fibres at the siege of Athens in 480 bce. Early in the Common Era the Arabs and Persians distilled crude oil to obtain flammable products for military purposes. Probably as a result of the Arab invasion of Spain, the industrial art of distillation into illuminants became available in western Europe by the 12th century.

Several centuries later, Spanish explorers discovered oil seeps in present-day Cuba, Mexico, Bolivia, and Peru. In North America oil seeps were plentiful and were noted by early explorers in what are now New York and Pennsylvania, where the Indians were reported to have used the oil for medicinal purposes.

Extraction from underground reservoirs

Until the beginning of the 19th century, illumination in the United States and in many other countries was little improved over that known by the early Greeks and Romans. The need for better illumination that accompanied the increasing development of urban centres made it necessary to search for new sources of oil, especially since whales, which had long provided fuel for lamps, were becoming harder and harder to find. By the mid-19th century kerosene, or coal oil, derived from coal was in common use in both North America and Europe.

The Industrial Revolution brought on an ever-growing demand for a cheaper and more convenient source of lubricants as well as illuminating oil. It also required better sources of energy. Energy had previously been provided by human and animal muscle and later by the combustion of such solid fuels as wood, peat, and coal. These were collected with considerable effort and laboriously transported to the site where the energy source was needed. Liquid petroleum, on the other hand, was a more easily transportable source of energy. Oil was a much more concentrated and flexible form of fuel than anything previously available.

The stage was set for the first well specifically drilled for oil, a project undertaken by Edwin L. Drake in northwestern Pennsylvania. The completion of the well in August 1859 established the groundwork for the petroleum industry and ushered in the closely associated modern industrial age. Within a short time inexpensive oil from underground reservoirs was being processed at already existing coal-oil refineries, and by the end of the century oil fields had been discovered in 14 states from New York to California and from Wyoming to Texas. During the same period, oil fields were found in Europe and East Asia as well.

Significance of oil in modern times

At the beginning of the 20th century the Industrial Revolution had progressed to the extent that the use of refined oil for illuminants ceased to be of primary importance. The oil industry became the major supplier of energy largely because of the advent of the automobile. Although oil constitutes a major petrochemical feedstock, its primary importance is as an energy source on which the world economy depends.

The significance of oil as a world energy source is difficult to overdramatize. The growth in energy production during the 20th century is unprecedented, and increasing oil production has been by far the major contributor to that growth. Every day an immense and intricate system moves more than 80 million barrels of oil from producers to consumers. The production and consumption of oil is of vital importance to international relations and has frequently been a decisive factor in the determination of foreign policy. The position of a country in this system depends on its production capacity as related to its consumption. The possession of oil deposits is sometimes the determining factor between a rich and a poor country. For any country, however, the presence or absence of oil has a major economic consequence.

On a timescale within the span of prospective human history, the utilization of oil as a major source of energy will be a transitory affair of a century or two. Nonetheless, it will have been an affair of profound importance to world industrialization.

Properties of oil

Chemical composition


Although oil consists basically of compounds of only two elements, carbon and hydrogen, these elements form a large variety of complex molecular structures. Regardless of physical or chemical variations, however, almost all crude oil ranges from 82 to 87 percent carbon by weight and 12 to 15 percent hydrogen. The more viscous bitumens generally vary from 80 to 85 percent carbon and from 8 to 11 percent hydrogen.

Crude oil can be grouped into three basic chemical series: paraffins, naphthenes, and aromatics. Most crude oils are mixtures of these three series in various and seemingly endless proportions. No two crude oils from different sources are completely identical.

The paraffin series of hydrocarbons, also called the methane (CH4) series, comprises the most common hydrocarbons in crude oil. It is a saturated straight-chain series that has the general formula CnH2n + 2, in which C is carbon, H is hydrogen, and n is an integer. The paraffins that are liquid at normal temperatures but boil between 40 and 200 °C (approximately between 100 and 400 °F) are the major constituents of gasoline. The residues obtained by refining lower-density paraffins are both plastic and solid paraffin waxes.

The naphthene series has the general formula CnH2n and is a saturated closed-ring series. This series is an important part of all liquid refinery products, but it also forms most of the complex residues from the higher boiling-point ranges. For this reason, the series is generally heavier. The residue of the refinery process is an asphalt, and the crude oils in which this series predominates are called asphalt-base crudes.

The aromatic series has the general formula CnH2n − 6 and is an unsaturated closed-ring series. Its most common member, benzene (C6H6), is present in all crude oils, but the aromatics as a series generally constitute only a small percentage of most crudes.


In addition to the practically infinite mixtures of hydrocarbon compounds that form crude oil, sulfur, nitrogen, and oxygen are usually present in small but often important quantities. Sulfur is the third most abundant atomic constituent of crude oils. It is present in the medium and heavy fractions of crude oils. In the low and medium molecular ranges, sulfur is associated only with carbon and hydrogen, while in the heavier fractions it is frequently incorporated in the large polycyclic molecules that also contain nitrogen and oxygen. The total sulfur in crude oil varies from below 0.05 percent (by weight), as in some Pennsylvania oils, to about 2 percent for average Middle Eastern crudes and up to 5 percent or more in heavy Mexican or Mississippi oils. Generally, the higher the specific gravity of the crude oil, the greater is its sulfur content. The excess sulfur is removed from crude oil during refining, because sulfur oxides released into the atmosphere during the combustion of oil would constitute a major pollutant. The oxygen content of crude oil is usually less than 2 percent by weight and is present as part of the heavier hydrocarbon compounds in most cases. For this reason, the heavier oils contain the most oxygen. Nitrogen is present in almost all crude oils, usually in quantities of less than 0.1 percent by weight. Sodium chloride also occurs in most crudes and is usually removed like sulfur.

Many metallic elements are found in crude oils, including most of those that occur in seawater. This is probably due to the close association between seawater and the organic forms from which oil is generated. Among the most common metallic elements in oil are vanadium and nickel, which apparently occur in organic combinations as they do in living plants and animals.

Crude oil also may contain a small amount of decay-resistant organic remains, such as siliceous skeletal fragments, wood, spores, resins, coal, and various other remnants of former life.

Physical properties

Oil consists of a closely related series of complex hydrocarbon compounds that range from gasoline to heavy solids. The various mixtures that constitute crude oil can be separated by distillation under increasing temperatures into such components as (from light to heavy) gasoline, kerosene, gas oil, lubricating oil, residual fuel oil, bitumen, and paraffin.

Crude oils vary greatly in their chemical composition. Because they consist of mixtures of thousands of hydrocarbon compounds, their physical properties such as colour, specific gravity, and viscosity also vary widely.


Crude oil is immiscible with and lighter than water; hence it floats. Crude oils are generally classified as bitumens, heavy oils, and medium and light oils on the basis of specific gravity (i.e., the ratio of the weight of equal volumes of the oil and pure water at standard conditions, with pure water considered to equal 1) and relative mobility. Bitumen is an immobile, degraded remnant of ancient petroleum; it is present in oil sands and does not flow into a well bore. Heavy crude oils have enough mobility that, given time, they can be obtained through a well bore in response to enhanced recovery methods. The more mobile medium and light oils are recoverable through production wells.

The widely used American Petroleum Institute (API) gravity scale is based on pure water, with an arbitrarily assigned API gravity of 10°. Liquids lighter than water, such as oil, have API gravities numerically greater than 10. Crude oils below 20° API gravity are usually considered heavy, whereas the conventional crudes with API gravities between 20° and 25° are regarded as medium, with light oils ranging above 25°.


Because oil is always at a temperature above the boiling point of some of its compounds, the more volatile constituents constantly escape into the atmosphere unless confined. It is impossible to refer to a common boiling point for crude oil because of the widely differing boiling points of its numerous compounds, some of which may boil at temperatures too high to be measured.

By the same token, it is impossible to refer to a common freezing point for a crude oil because the individual compounds solidify at different temperatures. However, the pour point—the temperature below which crude oil becomes plastic and will not flow—is important to recovery and transport and is always determined. Pour points range from 32 °C to below −57 °C (90 °F to below −70 °F).

Measurement systems

In the United States, crude oil is measured in barrels of 42 gallons each; the weight per barrel of API 30° light oil would be about 306 pounds. In many other countries, crude oil is measured in metric tons. For oil having the same gravity, a metric ton is equal to approximately 252 imperial gallons or about 7.2 U.S. barrels.

Origin of crude oil

Formation process


Although it is recognized that the original source of carbon and hydrogen was in the materials that made up the primordial Earth, it is generally accepted that these two elements have had to pass through an organic phase to be combined into the varied complex molecules recognized as crude oil. The organic material that is the source of most oil has probably been derived from single-celled planktonic (free-floating) plants, such as diatoms and blue-green algae, and single-celled planktonic animals, such as foraminifera, which live in aquatic environments of marine, brackish, or fresh water. Such simple organisms are known to have been abundant long before the Paleozoic Era, which began some 542 million years ago.

Rapid burial of the remains of the single-celled planktonic plants and animals within fine-grained sediments effectively preserved them. This provided the organic materials, the so-called protopetroleum, for later diagenesis (i.e., the series of processes involving biological, chemical, and physical changes) into true petroleum.

The first, or immature, stage of petroleum formation is dominated by biological activity and chemical rearrangement, which convert organic matter to kerogen. This dark-coloured, insoluble product of bacterially altered plant and animal detritus is the source of most hydrocarbons generated in the later stages. During the first stage, biogenic methane is the only hydrocarbon generated in commercial quantities. The production of biogenic methane gas is part of the process of decomposition of organic matter carried out by anaerobic microorganisms (those capable of living in the absence of free oxygen).


Deeper burial by continuing sedimentation, increasing temperatures, and advancing geologic age result in the mature stage of petroleum formation, during which the full range of petroleum compounds is produced from kerogen and other precursors by thermal degradation and cracking (the process by which heavy hydrocarbon molecules are broken up into lighter molecules). Depending on the amount and type of organic matter, oil generation occurs during the mature stage at depths of about 760 to 4,880 metres (2,500 to 16,000 feet) at temperatures between 65 and 150 °C (150 and 300 °F). This special environment is called the “oil window.” In areas of higher than normal geothermal gradient (increase in temperature with depth), the oil window exists at shallower depths in younger sediments but is narrower. Maximum oil generation occurs from depths of 2,000 to 2,900 metres (6,600 to 9,500 feet). Below 2,900 metres primarily wet gas, a type of gas containing liquid hydrocarbons known as natural gas liquids, is formed.

Approximately 90 percent of the organic material in sedimentary source rocks is dispersed kerogen. Its composition varies, consisting as it does of a range of residual materials whose basic molecular structure takes the form of stacked sheets of aromatic hydrocarbon rings in which atoms of sulfur, oxygen, and nitrogen also occur. Attached to the ends of the rings are various hydrocarbon compounds, including normal paraffin chains. The mild heating of the kerogen in the oil window of a source rock over long periods of time results in the cracking of the kerogen molecules and the release of the attached paraffin chains. Further heating, perhaps assisted by the catalytic effect of clay minerals in the source rock matrix, may then produce soluble bitumen compounds, followed by the various saturated and unsaturated hydrocarbons, asphaltenes, and others of the thousands of hydrocarbon compounds that make up crude oil mixtures.

At the end of the mature stage, below about 4,800 metres (16,000 feet), depending on the geothermal gradient, kerogen becomes condensed in structure and chemically stable. In this environment, crude oil is no longer stable and the main hydrocarbon product is dry thermal methane gas.

The geologic environment


Knowing the maximum temperature reached by a potential source rock during its geologic history helps in estimating the maturity of the organic material contained within it. Also, this information may indicate whether a region is gas-prone, oil-prone, both, or neither. The techniques employed to assess the maturity of potential source rocks in core samples include measuring the degree of darkening of fossil pollen grains and the colour changes in conodont fossils. In addition, geochemical evaluations can be made of mineralogical changes that were also induced by fluctuating paleotemperatures. In general, there appears to be a progressive evolution of crude oil characteristics from geologically younger, heavier, darker, more aromatic crudes to older, lighter, paler, more paraffinic types. There are, however, many exceptions to this rule, especially in regions with high geothermal gradients.

Accumulations of petroleum are usually found in relatively coarse-grained, permeable, and porous sedimentary reservoir rocks that contain little, if any, insoluble organic matter. It is unlikely that the vast quantities of oil now present in some reservoir rocks could have been generated from material of which no trace remains. Therefore, the site where commercial amounts of oil originated apparently is not always identical to the location at which they are ultimately discovered.

Oil is believed to have been generated in significant volumes only in fine-grained sedimentary rocks (usually clays, shales, or clastic carbonates) by geothermal action on kerogen, leaving an insoluble organic residue in the source rock. The release of oil from the solid particles of kerogen and its movement in the narrow pores and capillaries of the source rock is termed primary migration.

Accumulating sediments can provide energy to the migration system. Primary migration may be initiated during compaction as a result of the pressure of overlying sediments. Continued burial causes clay to become dehydrated by the removal of water molecules that were loosely combined with the clay minerals. With increasing temperature, the newly generated hydrocarbons may become sufficiently mobile to leave the source beds in solution, suspension, or emulsion with the water being expelled from the compacting molecular lattices of the clay minerals. The hydrocarbon molecules would compose only a very small part of the migrating fluids, a few hundred parts per million.


The hydrocarbons expelled from a source bed next move through the wider pores of carrier beds (e.g., sandstones or carbonates) that are coarser-grained and more permeable. This movement is termed secondary migration. The distinction between primary and secondary migration is based on pore size and rock type. In some cases, oil may migrate through such permeable carrier beds until it is trapped by a permeability barrier and forms an oil accumulation. In others, the oil may continue its migration until it becomes a seep on the surface of the Earth, where it will be broken down chemically by oxidation and bacterial action.

Since nearly all pores in subsurface sedimentary formations are water-saturated, the migration of oil takes place in an aqueous environment. Secondary migration may result from active water movement or can occur independently, either by displacement or by diffusion. Because the specific gravity of the water in the sedimentary formation is considerably higher than that of oil, the oil will float to the surface of the water in the course of geologic time and accumulate in the highest portion of a trap.


The porosity (volume of pore spaces) and permeability (capacity for transmitting fluids) of carrier and reservoir beds are important factors in the migration and accumulation of oil. Most petroleum accumulations have been found in clastic reservoirs (sandstones and siltstones). Next in number are the carbonate reservoirs (limestones and dolomites). Accumulations of petroleum also occur in shales and igneous and metamorphic rocks because of porosity resulting from fracturing, but such reservoirs are relatively rare. Porosities in reservoir rocks usually range from about 5 to 30 percent, but all available pore space is not occupied by petroleum. A certain amount of residual formation water cannot be displaced and is always present.

Reservoir rocks may be divided into two main types: (1) those in which the porosity and permeability is primary, or inherent, and (2) those in which they are secondary, or induced. Primary porosity and permeability are dependent on the size, shape, and grading and packing of the sediment grains and also on the manner of their initial consolidation. Secondary porosity and permeability result from postdepositional factors, such as solution, recrystallization, fracturing, weathering during temporary exposure at the Earth’s surface, and further cementation. These secondary factors may either enhance or diminish the inherent conditions.

Oil traps

After secondary migration in carrier beds, oil finally collects in a trap. The fundamental characteristic of a trap is an upward convex form of porous and permeable reservoir rock that is sealed above by a denser, relatively impermeable cap rock (e.g., shale or evaporites). The trap may be of any shape, the critical factor being that it is a closed, inverted container. A rare exception is hydrodynamic trapping, in which high water saturation of low-permeability sediments reduces hydrocarbon permeability to near zero, resulting in a water block and an accumulation of petroleum down the structural dip of a sedimentary bed below the water in the sedimentary formation.


Traps can be formed in many ways. Those formed by tectonic events, such as folding or faulting of rock units, are called structural traps. The most common structural traps are anticlines, upfolds of strata that appear as ovals on the horizontal planes of geologic maps. About 80 percent of the world’s petroleum has been found in anticlinal traps. Most anticlines were produced by lateral pressure, but some have resulted from the draping and subsequent compaction of accumulating sediments over topographic highs. The closure of an anticline is the vertical distance between its highest point and the spill plane, the level at which the petroleum can escape if the trap is filled beyond capacity. Some traps are filled with petroleum to their spill plane, but others contain considerably smaller amounts than they can accommodate on the basis of their size.

Another kind of structural trap is the fault trap. Here, rock fracture results in a relative displacement of strata that forms a barrier to petroleum migration. A barrier can occur when an impermeable bed is brought into contact with a carrier bed. Sometimes the faults themselves provide a seal against “updip” migration when they contain impervious clay gouge material between their walls. Faults and folds often combine to produce traps, each providing a part of the container for the enclosed petroleum. Faults can, however, allow the escape of petroleum from a former trap if they breach the cap rock seal.

Other structural traps are associated with salt domes. Such traps are formed by the upward movement of salt masses from deeply buried evaporite beds, and they occur along the folded or faulted flanks of the salt plug or on top of the plug in the overlying folded or draped sediments.


A second major class of oil traps is the stratigraphic trap. It is related to sediment deposition or erosion and is bounded on one or more sides by zones of low permeability. Because tectonics ultimately control deposition and erosion, however, few stratigraphic traps are completely without structural influence. The geologic history of most sedimentary basins contains the prerequisites for the formation of stratigraphic traps. Typical examples are fossil carbonate reefs, marine sandstone bars, and deltaic distributary channel sandstones. When buried, each of these geomorphic features provides a potential reservoir, which is often surrounded by finer-grained sediments that may act as source or cap rocks.

Sediments eroded from a landmass and deposited in an adjacent sea change from coarse- to fine-grained with increasing depth of water and distance from shore. Permeable sediments thus grade into impermeable sediments, forming a permeability barrier that eventually could trap migrating petroleum.

There are many other types of stratigraphic traps. Some are associated with the many transgressions and regressions of the sea that have occurred over geologic time and the resulting deposits of differing porosities. Others are caused by processes that increase secondary porosity, such as the dolomitization of limestones or the weathering of strata once located at the Earth’s surface.

World distribution of oil

Petroleum is not distributed evenly around the world. More than half of the world’s proven oil reserves are located in the Middle East (including Iran but not North Africa); that is to say, the Middle East contains more oil than the rest of the world combined. Following the Middle East are Canada and the United States, Latin America, Africa, and the region occupied by the former Soviet Union. Each of those regions contains less than 15 percent of the world’s proven reserves. (Reserves are identified quantities of “in-place” petroleum that are considered recoverable under current economic and technological conditions. Estimated by petroleum engineers and geologists using drilling and production data along with other subsurface information, the figures are revised to include projected field growth as development progresses.)

The amount of oil a given region produces is not always proportionate to the size of its proven reserves. For example, the Middle East contains more than 50 percent of the world’s proven reserves but accounts for only about 30 percent of global oil production (though this figure is still higher than in any other region). The United States, by contrast, lays claim to less than 2 percent of the world’s proven reserves but produces about 10 percent of the world’s oil.

Location of reserves


Two overriding principles apply to world petroleum production. First, most petroleum is contained in a few large fields, but most fields are small. Second, as exploration progresses, the average size of the fields discovered decreases, as does the amount of petroleum found per unit of exploratory drilling. In any region, the large fields are usually discovered first.

Since exploration for oil began during the early 1860s, some 50,000 oil fields have been discovered. More than 90 percent of these fields are insignificant in their impact on world oil production. The two largest classes of fields are the supergiants, fields with 5 billion or more barrels of ultimately recoverable oil, and world-class giants, fields with 500 million to 5 billion barrels of ultimately recoverable oil. Fewer than 40 supergiant oil fields have been found worldwide, yet these fields originally contained about one-half of all the oil so far discovered. The Arabian-Iranian sedimentary basin in the Persian Gulf region contains two-thirds of these supergiant fields. The remaining supergiants are distributed as follows: two in the United States, two in Russia, two in Mexico, one in Libya, one in Algeria, one in Venezuela, and two in China.

The nearly 280 world-class giant fields thus far discovered, plus the supergiants, account for about 80 percent of the world’s known recoverable oil. There are, in addition, approximately 1,000 known large oil fields that initially contained between 50 million and 500 million barrels. These fields account for some 14 to 16 percent of the world’s known oil. Less than 5 percent of the known fields originally contained roughly 95 percent of the world’s known oil.


Giant petroleum fields and significant petroleum-producing sedimentary basins are closely associated. In some basins, huge amounts of petroleum apparently have been generated because perhaps only about 10 percent of the generated petroleum is trapped and preserved. The Arabian-Iranian sedimentary basin is predominant because it contains more than 20 supergiant fields. No other basin has more than one such field. In 20 of the 26 most significant oil-containing basins, the 10 largest fields originally contained more than 50 percent of the known recoverable oil. Known world oil reserves are concentrated in a relatively small number of giant fields in a few sedimentary basins.

Worldwide, approximately 600 sedimentary basins are known to exist. About 160 of these have yielded oil, but only 26 are significant producers and 7 of these account for more than 65 percent of total known oil. Exploration has occurred in another 240 basins, but discoveries of commercial significance have not been made.


Current geologic understanding can usually distinguish between geologically favourable and unfavourable conditions for oil accumulation early in the exploration cycle. Thus, only a relatively few exploratory wells may be necessary to indicate whether a region is likely to contain significant amounts of oil. Modern petroleum exploration is an efficient process. If giant fields exist, it is likely that most of the oil in a region will be found by the first 50 to 250 exploratory wells. This number may be exceeded if there is a much greater than normal amount of major prospects or if exploration drilling patterns are dictated by either political or unusual technological considerations. Thus, while undiscovered commercial oil fields may exist in some of the 240 explored but seemingly barren basins, it is unlikely that they will be of major importance since the largest are normally found early in the exploration process.

The remaining 200 basins have had little or no exploration, but they have had sufficient geologic study to indicate their dimensions, amount and type of sediments, and general structural character. Most of the underexplored (or frontier) basins are located in difficult environments, such as polar regions or submerged continental margins. The larger sedimentary basins—those containing more than 833,000 cubic kilometres (200,000 cubic miles) of sediments—account for some 70 percent of known world petroleum. Future exploration will have to involve the smaller basins as well as the more expensive and difficult frontier basins.

Status of the world oil supply

On several occasions—most notably, during the oil crises of 1973–74 and 1978–79 and during the first half of 2008—the price of petroleum rose steeply. Because oil is such a crucial source of energy worldwide, such rapid rises in price spark recurrent debates about the accessibility of global supplies, the extent to which producers will be able to meet demand in decades to come, and the potential for alternative sources of energy to mitigate concerns about energy supply.

How much oil does the Earth have? The short answer to this question is, “Nobody knows.” In its 2000 assessment of total world oil supplies, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that about 3 trillion barrels of recoverable oil originally existed on Earth and that about 710 billion barrels of that amount had been consumed by 1995. The survey acknowledged, however, that the total recoverable amount of oil could be higher or lower—3 trillion barrels was not a guess but an average of estimates based on different probabilities. This caveat notwithstanding, the USGS estimate was hotly disputed. Some experts said that technological improvements would create a situation in which much more oil would be ultimately recoverable, whereas others said that much less oil would be recoverable and that more than one-half of the world’s original oil supply had already been consumed.

There is ambiguity in all such predictions. When industry experts speak of total “global oil reserves,” they refer specifically to the amount of oil that is thought to be recoverable, not the total amount remaining on Earth. What is counted as “recoverable,” however, varies from estimate to estimate. Analysts make distinctions between “proven reserves”—those that can be demonstrated as recoverable with reasonable certainty, given existing economic and technological conditions—and reserves that may be recoverable but are more speculative. The Oil & Gas Journal, a prominent weekly magazine for the petroleum industry, estimated in late 2007 that the world’s proven reserves amounted to roughly 1.3 trillion barrels. To put this number in context, the world’s population consumed about 30 billion barrels of oil in 2007. At this rate of consumption, disregarding any new reserves that might be found, the world’s proven reserves would be depleted in about 43 years.

By any estimation, it is clear that the Earth has a finite amount of oil and that global demand is expected to increase. In 2007 the National Petroleum Council, an advisory committee to the U.S. secretary of energy, projected that world demand for oil would rise from 86 million barrels per day to as much as 138 million barrels per day in 2030. Yet experts remain divided on whether the world will be able to supply so much oil. Some argue that the world has reached “peak oil”—its peak rate of oil production. The controversial theory behind this argument draws on studies that show how production from individual oil fields and from oil-producing regions has tended to increase to a point in time and then decrease thereafter. (For example, oil production in the continental United States increased steadily through the early and mid-20th century until it peaked in 1970; by 2008 it had declined by almost 50 percent from its peak.) “Peak-oil theory” suggests that once global peak oil has been reached, the rate of oil production in the world will progressively decline, with severe economic consequences to oil-importing countries.

A more widely accepted view is that, through the early 21st century at least, production capacity will be limited not by the amount of oil in the ground but by other factors, such as geopolitics or economics. One concern is that growing dominance by nationalized oil companies, as opposed to independent oil firms, can lead to a situation in which countries with access to oil reserves will limit production for political or economic gain. A separate concern is that nonconventional sources of oil—such as oil sand reserves, oil shale deposits, or reserves that are found under very deep water—will be significantly more expensive to produce than conventional crude oil unless new technologies are developed that reduce production costs.

Major oil-producing countries

As mentioned above, petroleum resources are not distributed evenly around the world. Indeed, according to estimates published for 2006 by the U.S. Department of Energy, as few as 15 countries account for 75 percent of the world’s oil production and hold 93 percent of its reserves. Significantly, those countries are projected to have a correspondingly large percentage of the world’s remaining undiscovered oil resources, which are estimated by the extrapolation of known production and reserve data into untested sediments of similar geology.


Saudi Arabia has the largest proven oil reserves of any country—some 260 billion barrels, or approximately 20 percent of the world’s proven reserves—not to mention significant potential for additional discoveries. The discovery that transformed Saudi Arabia into a leading oil country was Al-Ghawār oil field. Discovered in 1948, this field has proved to be the world’s largest, containing an estimated 70 billion barrels after 60 years of production. Another important discovery was the Saffānīyah offshore field in the Persian Gulf. It is the third largest oil field in the world and the largest offshore. Saudi Arabia has eight other supergiant oil fields. Saudi fields, as well as many other Middle Eastern fields, are located in the great Arabian-Iranian basin (see map).


The Middle Eastern countries of Iraq, Kuwait, and Iran are each estimated to have had an original oil endowment in excess of 100 billion barrels. Together they account for more than 25 percent of all proven reserves in the world. These countries have a number of supergiant fields, all of which are located in the Arabian-Iranian basin, including Kuwait’s Al-Burqān field. Al-Burqān is the world’s second largest oil field, having originally contained 75 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Iraq possesses a significant potential for additional oil discoveries.


Russia is thought to possess the best potential for new discoveries. It has significant proven reserves—some 60 billion barrels, or almost 5 percent of the world total—and is the world’s leading petroleum producer. Russian oil is derived from many sedimentary basins within the vast country (see map), in which two supergiant oil fields, Samotlor and Romashkino, were discovered in 1964 and 1949, respectively. Production from these mature fields is on the decline, however, so that total Russian oil output is maintained by production at new fields. The best prospects for new Russian discoveries appear to exist in the difficult and expensive frontier areas such as Sakhalin Island.


North America has many sedimentary basins, as shown in the map. Basins in the United States have been intensively explored and their oil resources developed. More than 33,000 oil fields have been found, but only two are supergiants (Prudhoe Bay in the North Slope region of Alaska and East Texas). Cumulatively, the United States has produced more oil than any other country. Its proven oil reserves amount to some 20 billion barrels, representing less than 2 percent of the world total, but the country is still considered to have a significant remaining undiscovered oil resource. Prudhoe Bay, which accounted for approximately 17 percent of U.S. oil production during the mid-1980s, is in decline. This situation, coupled with declining oil production in the conterminous United States, has contributed to a significant drop in domestic oil output.

Mexico has more than 10 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and is one of the top 10 oil producers in the world. However, its principal supergiant oil field (Cantarell, offshore of Campeche state) is in decline, making it difficult to sustain current production levels well into the 21st century.

Canada has less than 10 billion barrels of proven reserves of conventional liquid oil, but huge deposits of oil sands in the Athabasca region of Alberta in western Canada bring the country’s total proven oil reserves to approximately 175 billion barrels, behind only oil giants Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Canada’s largest oil field is Hibernia, discovered in the Jeanne d’Arc basin off Newfoundland in 1979. This giant field began producing in 1997 and was soon joined by two other fields, Terra Nova (first production 2002) and White Rose (first production 2005).


Venezuela is the largest oil exporter in the Western Hemisphere and has long been an important country in the world oil market. With approximately 210 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, it has the world’s second largest oil endowment, behind only Saudi Arabia. Most of these reserves, however, are in the form of extra-heavy oil and bitumen deposits located in the Orinoco belt in the central part of the country, which have not been exploited to a large extent. The country’s most important producing fields are found in the Maracaibo basin in the west; these mature fields are declining in production.

Brazil is an important new energy producer on the world scene. Its 14 billion barrels of proven oil reserves are the second largest in South America. Most of those reserves are located in the Atlantic Ocean, in the Campos and Santos basins off the coasts of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo states, respectively.


The United Kingdom is an important North Sea producer, and its proven oil reserves of some three billion barrels are the largest in the European Union. Crude oil production, which peaked in the late 1990s, has declined to less than half of its peak level, however, and Britain, once a net oil exporter, is now a net oil importer.


Encyclopedia Britannica

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