USGS Arctic Resource Appraisal

A big reason why so many countries are taking an interest in the newly accessible Arctic is its extensive oil and natural gas reserves. This natural resource appraisal report by the US Geological Survey from 2008 continues to be an oft-cited source in research and policy documents pertaining to the Arctic. Find the fully detailed pdf here:


In May 2008 a team of U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists completed an ap- praisal of possible future additions to world oil and gas reserves from new field dis- coveries in the Arctic. This Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal (CARA) evaluated the petroleum potential of all areas north of the Arctic Circle (66.56° north latitude); quantitative assessments were conducted in those geologic areas considered to have at least a 10-percent chance of one or more significant oil or gas accumulations.

For the purposes of the study, a significant accu- mulation contains recoverable volumes of at least 50 million barrels of oil and/or oil- equivalent natural gas. The study included only those resources believed to be recov- erable using existing technology, but with the important assumptions for offshore areas that the resources would be recover- able even in the presence of permanent sea ice and oceanic water depth. No economic considerations are included in these initial estimates; results are presented without reference to costs of exploration and development, which will be important in many of the assessed areas. So-called nonconventional resources, such as coal bed methane, gas hy- drate, oil shale, and tar sand, were explicitly excluded from the study. Full details of the CARA study will be published later.

A number of onshore areas in Canada, Rus- sia, and Alaska already have been explored for petroleum, resulting in the discovery of more than 400 oil and gas fields north of the Arctic Circle. These fields account for approximately 240 billion barrels (BBOE) of oil and oil-equivalent natural gas, which is almost 10 percent of the world’s known conventional petroleum resources (cumulative production and remaining proved reserves). Nevertheless, most of the Arctic, especially offshore, is essentially unexplored with respect to petroleum. The Arctic Circle encompasses about 6 percent of the Earth’s surface, an area of more than 21 million km2 (8.2 million mi2), of which almost 8 million km2 (3.1 million mi2) is onshore and more than 7 million km2 (2.7 million mi2) is on continental shelves under less than 500 m of water. The extensive Arctic continental shelves may constitute the geographically largest unexplored prospective area for petroleum remaining on Earth.


A newly compiled map of Arctic sedimen- tary basins (Arthur Grantz and others, un- published work) was used to define geologic provinces, each containing more than 3 km of sedimentary strata. Assessment units (AUs)— mappable volumes of rock with common geologic traits—were identified within each province and quantitatively assessed for petroleum potential. Because of the sparse seismic and drilling data in much of the Arctic, the usual tools and techniques used in USGS resource assessments, such as discov- ery process modeling, prospect delineation, and deposit simulation, were not generally applicable. Therefore, the CARA relied on a probabilistic methodology of geological analysis and analog modeling. A world analog database (Charpentier and others, 2008) was developed using the AUs defined in the USGS World Petroleum Assessment 2000 (USGS World Assessment Team, 2000).

The database includes areas that account for more than 95 percent of the world’s known oil and gas resources outside the United States. For each assessment unit, the CARA team assessed the probability (AU probability) that a significant oil or gas accumulation was pres- ent. This evaluation of AU probability was based on three geologic elements: (1) charge (including source rocks and thermal maturi- ty), (2) rocks (including reservoirs, traps, and seals), and (3) timing (including the relative ages of migration and trap formation, as well as preservation). Each assessment unit was ranked according to its AU probability; those AUs judged to have less than a 10-percent probability of a significant accumulation were not quantitatively assessed.

In addition to the AU probability, the number of accumulations, the size-frequency distribution of accumulations, and the relative likelihood of oil versus gas were assessed for each AU and combined by means of a Monte Carlo simulation. The probabilistic results re- flect the wide range of uncertainty inherent in frontier geological provinces such as those of the Arctic.

Results—Resource Summary

Within the area of the CARA, 25 provinc- es were quantitatively assessed; 8 provinces were judged to have less than a 10-percent probability of at least one significant accu- mulation in any AU and were, therefore, not assessed. Results of individual AU assessments are not reported here, but the AUs are shown as mapped areas on figure 1, where they are color-coded for the probability of at least one undiscovered accumulation of minimum size. The provinces are listed in table 1, in ranked order of total mean esti- mated oil-equivalent volumes of undiscov- ered oil, gas, and natural gas liquids (NGL). The provinces are shown in figures 2 and 3, where they have been color-coded with re- spect to fully risked (including AU probabili- ties) potential for gas and oil, respectively.

More than 70 percent of the mean undis- covered oil resources is estimated to occur in five provinces: Arctic Alaska, Amerasia Ba- sin, East Greenland Rift Basins, East Barents Basins, and West Greenland–East Canada. More than 70 percent of the undiscovered natural gas is estimated to occur in three prov- inces, the West Siberian Basin, the East Bar- ents Basins, and Arctic Alaska. It is further estimated that approximately 84 percent of the undiscovered oil and gas occurs offshore. The total mean undiscovered conventional oil and gas resources of the Arctic are estimated to be approximately 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids."

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