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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

U.S. Oil Reserves

Q: Are anti-drilling forces blocking access to the world’s largest oil reserve in the western U.S.?

A: The Bakken Formation touted in a chain e-mail isn’t the world’s largest oil reserve. The amount of oil it contains, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, is less than one one-hundredth of the estimate cited in the e-mail.


I have a friend who always sends me this sort of thing, which I can never verify. sounds like someone selling swamp water… thanks.

Chain e-mail: If you start reading and “don’t believe” go to the bottom of the page and click on the US Government link. You’ll get the same information.

The U. S. Geological Service issued a report in April (’08) that only scientists and oil men knew was coming, but man was it big. It was a revised report (hadn’t been updated since ’95) on how much oil was in this area of the western 2/3 of North Dakota ; western South Dakota ; and extreme eastern Montana ….. check THIS out:

The Bakken is the largest domestic oil discovery since Alaska ‘s Prudhoe Bay , and has the potential to eliminate all American dependence on foreign oil. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates it at 503 billion barrels.. Even if just 10% of the oil is recoverable… at $107 a barrel, we’re looking at a resource base worth more than $5.3 trillion.

‘When I first briefed legislators on this, you could practically see their jaws hit the floor. They had no idea.’ says Terry Johnson, the Montana Legislature’s financial analyst.

‘This sizable find is now the highest-producing onshore oil field found in the past 56 years.’ reports, The Pittsburgh Post Gazette. It’s a formation known as the Williston Basin , but is more commonly referred to as the ‘Bakken.’ And it stretches from Northern Montana, through North Dakota and into Canada . For years, U. S. oil exploration has been considered a dead end. Even the ‘Big Oil’ companies gave up searching for major oil wells decades ago. However, a recent technological breakthrough has opened up the Bakken’s massive reserves…. and we now have access of up to 500 billion barrels. And because this is light, sweet oil, those billions of barrels will cost Americans just $16 PER BARREL!

That’s enough crude to fully fuel the American economy for 41 years straight.

2. And if THAT didn’t throw you on the floor, then this next one should – because it’s from TWO YEARS AGO!

U. S. Oil Discovery- Largest Reserve in the World!

Stansberry Report Online – 4/20/2006


Hidden 1,000 feet beneath the surface of the Rocky Mountains lies the largest untapped oil reserve in the world. It is more than 2 TRILLION barrels. On August 8, 2005 President Bush mandated its extraction. In three and a half years of high oil prices none has been extracted. With this mother load of oil why are we still fighting over off-shore drilling?

They reported this stunning news: We have more oil inside our borders, than all the other proven reserves on earth. Here are the official estimates:

– 8-times as much oil as Saudi Arabia
– 18-times as much oil as Iraq
– 21-times as much oil as Kuwait
– 22-times as much oil as Iran
– 500-times as much oil as Yemen
– and it’s all right here in the Western United States .

HOW can this BE? HOW can we NOT BE extracting this? Because the environmentalists and others have blocked all efforts to help America become independent of foreign oil! Again, we are letting a small group of people dictate our lives and our economy….WHY?

James Bartis, lead researcher with the study says we’ve got more oil in this very compact area than the entire Middle East -more than 2 TRILLION barrels untapped. That’s more than all the proven oil reserves of crude oil in the world today, reports The Denver Post.

Don’t think ‘OPEC’ will drop its price – even with this find? Think again! It’s all about the competitive marketplace, – it has to. Think OPEC just might be funding the environmentalists?

Got your attention/ire up yet? Hope so! Now, while you’re thinking about it …. and hopefully P.O’d, do this:

3. Pass this along If you don’t take a little time to do this, then you should stifle yourself the next time you want to complain about gas prices .. because by doing NOTHING, you’ve forfeited your right to complain.

Now I just wonder what would happen in this country if every one of you sent this to every one in your address book.

By the way…this is all true. Check it out at the link below!!!
GOOGLE it or follow this link. It will blow your mind.


Update, Nov. 4, 2011: Since we wrote this report, technological advances have dramatically changed the prospects for oil recovery from the Bakken Formation. In October 2011, the USGS began an effort to reassess its 2008 report as a result of “new scientific and technological information about the Bakken.” They estimate the update will take approximately two years to complete. We stand by our initial analysis regarding the chain email’s claim that the Bakken contains potentially 503 billion barrels of oil — this news does not affect the fact that neither the USGS nor the EIA had officially projected such lofty numbers in the reports cited. However, it does indicate that the official estimates that we had reported could prove to be well on the conservative side.

Indeed, advances in drilling techniques, like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (commonly referred to as “fracking”), are major factors that have led to something of a boom in oil production countrywide. This could very well enable higher yields on recoverable oil in reserves like the Bakken, which saw rapid growth in drilling and production between 2006 and 2010. Continental Resources Inc., the independent oil and natural gas exploration and production company that holds the largest acreage positions and is the most active operator in the Bakken, has estimated that the total could be closer to 24 billion barrels. That’s roughly five times the estimate produced by the USGS in 2008 — much larger, to be sure, but still nowhere near the 503 billion claim.

We’ve received this e-mail from our readers several dozen times, and a Google search for some of its claims turns up hundreds of results. Unfortunately, it is false. It combines and twists several different news stories and studies into a longer tale of sound and fury that ultimately signifies nothing (factually anyway).

The tale begins with an exhortation telling the reader to “go to the bottom of the page and click on the US Government link” for proof of the e-mail’s veracity. Well, we did. And the link to a U.S. Geological Survey press release from April 2008 directly contradicts the e-mail’s main assertion.

The e-mail says that the Bakken Formation oil reserve (which is located in the Dakotas and Montana) “has the potential to eliminate all American dependence on foreign oil” and is estimated to hold 503 billion barrels of oil. That’s not true. It credits the USGS report from 2008 as the source of this information. It’s not.

The glowing language and more optimistic estimates about Bakken quoted in the e-mail can be traced to a 2006 Wall Street Journal story reprinted in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. But the anonymous author of this e-mail omits an important caveat from that story, which said that “the lofty predictions remain unproven, and skeptics remain.”

And there was an incomplete USGS draft study of the Bakken from 2000 that included estimates ranging up to 500 billion barrels. But the Energy Information Administration explained in 2006 that it was not peer-reviewed and cautioned readers to wait for the official USGS estimate:

EIA, 2006: A draft study by the late organic geochemist Leigh Price provides estimates ranging from 271 to 503 billion barrels (mean of 413 billion) of potential resources in place. The study represents Dr. Price’s work as it stood at the time of his death in August 2000. It was conducted while he was working for the USGS, but it did not receive a complete scientific peer review by the USGS and was not published as a USGS product. A new assessment of the entire basin, due out in about a year, will provide an updated USGS estimate of the technically recoverable oil resources in the Bakken Formation.

The official estimate, contained in the USGS press release from last year, was a substantially smaller estimate of technically recoverable oil: 3 billion to 4.3 billion barrels.

The e-mail cites James Bartis as a “lead researcher of this study,” but he was actually a RAND researcher who led a different, related study. Bartis wrote a 2006 report on oil shale development and resources in the United States that said “the midpoint in our estimate range, 800 billion barrels, is more than triple the proven oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.” That’s for the entire U.S., not Bakken alone. But Bartis also cautioned that the technology to extract oil from the fields was not yet commercially viable and said that even “under high growth assumptions, an oil shale production level of 1 million barrels per day is probably more than 20 years in the future, and 3 million barrels per day is probably more than 30 years into the future.” Nowhere in his study did Bartis say that Bakken has “more than 2 trillion barrels,” as the e-mail falsely claims.

Snopes.com reviewed a similar mutation of this e-mail and traced the 2 trillion barrels of oil estimate to a tout sheet from the Stansberry Report Online, a group referenced in the e-mail. Snopes also noted that Stansberry is an investment newsletter trying to sell subscriptions. The Stansberry site appeared to be down when we tried to access it, but the tout sheet was reproduced here.

Snopes ultimatley ruled the e-mail to be a “mixture of true and false information.” We agree. But we’d add that the email’s implication that politicians, environmentalists and the media are preventing oil drilling in the Bakken is decidedly false. The Bakken has already seen drilling and was a principal cause of the recent increase in U.S. proven oil reserves, according to the EIA.

–Justin Bank


Fialka, John J. “Wildcat producer sparks oil boom on Montana plains.” Wall Street Journal, 5 April 2006.

Press Release. “3 to 4.3 Billion Barrels of Technically Recoverable Oil Assessed in North Dakota and Montana’s Bakken Formation—25 Times More Than 1995 Estimate—.” United States Geological Survey Newsroom, 10 April 2008.

USGS Frequently Asked Questions. “What is the time frame to accomplish the retrieval of this oil and gas?” accessed 16 March 2009.