Geochemistry, Mineralogy, Volcanology News

Largest Ever U.S. Shale Oil Deposit Identified in Texas

The Wolfcamp shale, which underlies a large swath of Texas roughly centered on the city of Midland, contains 20 billion barrels of oil that could be recovered with current technology.


As global oil prices remain mired in their worst downturn in decades, news from western Texas suggests that petroleum fortunes continue to smile on the region.

In its first assessment in nearly a decade of the Permian Basin, a large sedimentary basin underlying parts of Texas and New Mexico, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has determined that a vast deposit of shale there, known as the Wolfcamp shale, contains much more oil than previously estimated. In fact, according to a USGS announcement last Tuesday, the region contains what is estimated to be the largest amount of continuous oil—meaning oil accessible only by means of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking—ever assessed in the United States. The agency estimated the Wolfcamp shale contains 20 billion barrels (3.2 billion cubic meters) of oil that can be recovered using today’s technology. That’s nearly 3 times as much recoverable oil as estimated in the Bakken–Three Forks accumulation in North Dakota. A similar assessment had estimated, in 2013, that the Bakken–Three Forks oil field was the largest continuous oil accumulation in the United States.

Unlike “conventional” oil that accumulated underground in discrete, buoyant pools on a column of water and can be drawn to the surface using a traditional vertical drilling rig, unconventional continuous oil accumulations commonly occur in shale reservoirs or coal beds. In these accumulations, the oil has dispersed throughout the geologic formation.

Map of Midland Basin, site of Wolfcamp shale.
The Wolfcamp shale lies in the Midland Basin portion of the Permian Basin. The map shows the basin’s “assessment units” (regions with similar geology, exploration strategy, and risk characteristics) in west Texas. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey, Energy Resources Program

The Wolfcamp shale makes up part of the Midland Basin, a major component of the Permian Basin, along with the Delaware Basin and the Central Basin Platform. The Permian’s basins were low-lying marine features that collected sediments rich in organic, deepwater material, which eventually became the petroleum source rocks in production today. According to Chris Schenk, project chief of the National and Global Petroleum Assessment and a coauthor of the USGS report, the Permian source rocks form strong stratigraphic traps that seal oil in the rocks, creating one of the best petroleum systems in the world.

The Wolfcamp shale also contains an estimated 16 trillion cubic feet (453 billion cubic meters) of associated natural gas and 1.6 billion barrels (245 million cubic meters) of natural gas liquids, according to USGS.

Welcome, but Not Surprising, for Petroleum Industry

The agency’s announcement hardly comes as a surprise to those who work in the Permian Basin. In a statement to Eos, the Permian Basin Petroleum Association commented that the USGS estimate was exciting but was more of a confirmation than a new story.

Troy Cook, a petroleum engineer with the U.S. Energy Information Administration, agreed and added that if anything, some companies may even find the estimate on the low end. For example, the oil company Pioneer Natural Resources has stated that continuous oil in the Wolfcamp shale and an overlying deposit known as the Spraberry Formation could eventually produce upward of 100 billion barrels (16 billion cubic meters) of oil.

For decades, oil and gas companies have used vertical wells to access conventional oil accumulations in the Permian Basin; however, the oil industry is now mostly using hydraulically fractured horizontal wells to retrieve the continuous oil found in the Wolfcamp shale.

Schenk said there are roughly 3000 horizontal wells currently operating in the Wolfcamp shale. Production data from these wells, along with research articles, industry subsurface data, and other background sources, were used to craft a geologic framework of the basin and derive the newly reported estimate.

Even Greater Potential?

Cook noted that although the USGS estimate is substantial, it is hard to determine if the assessment is big or small compared to other potential resources in the Permian Basin. The Permian Basin is one of the most prolific basins in the world, he said, and as engineering and technology evolve, they may open up other shale resources for exploration and development.

Walter Guidroz, program coordinator for the USGS Energy Resources Program, said in the USGS press release, “The fact that this is the largest assessment of continuous oil we have ever done just goes to show that, even in areas that have produced billions of barrels of oil, there is still the potential to find billions more.”

The USGS assessment, although large, may not capture the full extent of the Wolfcamp resource. Because well production data inform so much of the estimate, the estimated resource could grow even larger in time as new wells provide more data, Schenk said.

—Aaron Sidder (email: [email protected]), Freelance Science Writer

Citation: Sidder, A. (2016), Largest ever U.S. shale oil deposit identified in Texas, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO063225. Published on 21 November 2016.
© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
  • Aaron Sidder

    Thanks to you all for reading this article! @markeakin:disqus I did not discuss the CO2 potential of the deposit because of the uncertainty surrounding its development, which @ashermiller:disqus touches on. Though you can “almost read the giddy glee,” you cannot actually read it in the article, because we take great care to report the news objectively. We deliberately avoided commenting on either the economics or environmental impacts of development because it is unclear how large either footprint will be.

    The USGS stressed to me that this purely an estimate of the deposit, and does not get into the economics of the development. The cost of development fluctuates with oil and natural gas prices and competition on the energy market from renewables. The deposit does have potential to release large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, but the future emissions will depend on how much is actually produced, which is largely tied to the economics of development. There are major ramifications for both CO2 emissions and economics, but those will play out over time as the market and energy/climate policy dictates.

  • Robert

    This is good news on the face of it. Fundamental questions remain. What is the net energy from this? Are the trade offs (water, air pollution, more CO2, earthquakes, ruined roads, etc.) worth the benefits (jobs, revenues, national security, etc.)? Will this be sufficient to offset the declines in conventional oil? Will it follow the historical patterns of other shale oil finds (70% depleted in 1 year and 90% in three years)?

  • ashermiller

    I’d like to add a bit of context that I feel is missing from this article. The USGS estimate is of “undiscovered, technically recoverable oil.” This estimate has a 50% probability and does not factor in price. Art Berman, in Forbes, ran the math and found that at current prices, producing all that theoretical oil would lose $500 billion.

    This article repeats claims that the USGS estimate could actually be too low. But it ignores the possibility that it could be too high. Does anyone remember the tremendous hype about the Monterey Formation in California? The EIA had estimated it contained over 15 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil. A few years later they downgraded that estimate by 96%.

    Undoubtedly, a lot of tight oil remains in the Wolfcamp. But what matters is production rates, prices, environmental/human impacts, and how production of any fossil fuel resources at this point fits in to a larger — hopefully sane — energy and climate policy.

  • Mark Eakin

    You can almost read the giddy glee in this article. No mention in the article that the oil alone in this deposit has a potential to release over 2 GT of CO2 into the atmosphere, or 1% of the total CO2 we can release before we blow past the 1.5°C temperature rise goal set by the Paris agreement and 5% of total annual CO2 release.