Siberian shale find fuels Russia’s fracking future

Vast oil reserves could create new top producer

Russia is showing the world that it does things in a big way at the Sochi Olympics. Now, at the opposite end of the vast country, Russia is aiming to be the next big player in the global shale oil revolution.

With the world’s largest reserves of shale oil locked in underground formations sprawling across Russia’s vast Siberian wilderness, the Eurasian giant — already a top world oil producer — has the most potential of any country to rival or surpass the United States in shale production in coming years.


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Estimates of the amount of shale oil trapped in the Bazhenov formation in western Siberia alone range up to 2 trillion barrels, of which 22 billion to 360 billion barrels is recoverable today using hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies developed by U.S. producers.

Those resources could far surpass Saudi Arabia’s legendary oil treasures and are at least as prolific as the Bakken formation in North Dakota that is feeding the boom in shale oil production in the U.S.

With so much oil at stake and Russian tax incentives enacted last year to tap domestic shale with an eye toward burnishing the Eurasian giant’s oil superpower status, major petroleum companies such as Exxon and Shell are rushing in and joining Russian energy giants Rosneft and Gazprom to establish stakes in the most potentially lucrative shale plays.

“The energy landscape is changing radically,” said Arjun Sreekumar, an analyst at the Motley Fool. “With world-class operators like Exxon and Shell on board to provide the requisite skills, equipment, and know-how to exploit shale formations like the Bazhenov, Russia could very well have a shale revolution of its own within the next couple of decades.”

Shale developers in Russia face a few obstacles mostly stemming from the harsh Arctic climate, but the prospects for success at tapping Russia’s shale are better than anywhere else in the world outside the U.S.

“The sheer quantity of oil that is estimated to be contained inside of the Bazhenov Shale is nothing short of astonishing,” said one international investor operating in Russia, noting that while major oil companies are only beginning to enter the Russian shale market and get a fix on the exact size of Russia’s enormous shale resources, they most likely are several times larger than those discovered in the U.S.


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“Clearly, this is a resource that neither the oil and gas industry nor investors should ignore,” he said.

Russia also has many of the advantages that have enabled pioneering oil companies in the U.S. to make a lucrative business of shale oil development, including the plentiful water resources needed to deploy fracking techniques. Russia also has an extensive infrastructure of pipelines and oil processing facilities that serve the oil fields in western Siberia that lie on top of the Bazhenov formation and are the main source of Russia’s oil production.

That puts Russia ahead of China, for example, where legal hurdles and water shortages in regions where China has big stores of shale gas pose major obstacles to development.

Russia alone has the technology, infrastructure, water and political will to be the next revolutionary shale venue — not to mention a lot of sparsely populated space in which to drill without public backlash,” said Charles Kennedy of OilPrice.com.

Although some analysts are cautious about predicting Russia’s success at shale development, given the many obstacles in countries outside the U.S., oil giant BP last month predicted that Russia will become the world’s second-largest tight oil producer behind the U.S. by 2035, with about 800,000 barrels a day.

Slow to warm

Despite its great potential, Moscow was slow to warm to the shale revolution, which appeared to pose a threat to Russia’s status as the predominant provider of natural gas and oil to much of Europe. More recently, however, Russian leaders have come to realize that their huge shale resources could help preserve and expand their energy empire.

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