Venezuela’s Orinoco Oil Belt is one of the world’s largest known oil deposits, and the U.S. Geological Survey says in a new estimate that it likely holds 513 billion barrels of recoverable heavy crude - nearly twice as much as the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia.
The USGS said in the assessment released Friday that it estimated how much oil could be recovered using existing technologies, and that the area has the largest accumulation it has ever assessed.
There was no immediate reaction from the State oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, which has said it hopes to eventually certify more than 235 billion barrels of crude in the Orinoco River basin in eastern Venezuela.
USGS geologist Chris Schenk, who led a group of researchers in preparing the assessment, said the team based its figures not on estimated reserves that could be certified, but rather on “what could be recoverable with the technologies that we’re aware of today.”
“We’re saying they’re technically recoverable but not necessarily economically recoverable today,” Mr. Schenk said in a telephone interview from Denver.
The USGS team relied in part on data from PDVSA, which has said the Orinoco River basin could potentially hold 1.3 trillion barrels of extra-heavy crude - only some of which is feasible to pump from subterranean sandstone reservoirs.
The USGS team came up with a range of “technically recoverable” oil estimates in the Orinoco belt from 380 billion to 652 billion barrels - and determined a mean estimate of 513 billion barrels.
“Some of the recoveries that they’ve reported from pilot projects are pretty high. And it just shows that with time, technology just gets better,” Mr. Schenk said.
He said the estimate is based on oil recovery rates of 40 percent to 45 percent.
Venezuelan oil geologist Gustavo Coronel called that overly optimistic.
“I doubt the recovery factor could go much higher than 25 percent and much of that oil would not be economic to produce,” said Mr. Coronel, an energy consultant and former PDVSA board member who lives in McLean, Virginia. “It’s beyond what’s technically feasible at this time.”
A PDVSA spokesman did not immediately return calls on Friday seeking comment.
Venezuela already boasts the largest proven reserves outside of the Mideast - 172 billion barrels according to the government - but still trails the world leader Saudi Arabia, which has proven reserves of more than 260 billion barrels.
President Hugo Chavez has made it a priority to gradually increase Venezuela’s proven reserves, particularly in the Orinoco Oil Belt, or “Faja,” as is it called in Spanish.
The heavy crude is costlier to upgrade than benchmark light, sweet crude, but is still attractive to major oil companies that have been working with Venezuela to explore for oil in the Orinoco region.
Foreign companies operating in Venezuela include U.S.—based Chevron Corp., France’s Total, Britain’s BP PLC and others including State oil companies from allies China, Russia and Iran.