Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 05/2012

Understanding Unconventional Oil

Deborah Gordon

May 2012

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


Conventional oil production has peaked and is now on a terminal, long-run global decline. However, contrary to conventional wisdom, which many embraced during back-to-back oil crises in the 1970s, oil is not running out. It is, instead, changing form—geographically, geologically, chemically, and economically. These dynamics point to a new reality. We are approaching the end of easily accessible, relatively homogeneous oil, and many experts claim that the era of cheap oil may also be ending. The realignment of world oil prices upward, settling above $100 per barrel over the past year, is spurring a transformation of oil technology and markets. The oil industry is posting substantial profits, reinvesting significant capital, and gaining new capacities to identify, probe, recover, and process oils that were once unknown, inaccessible, unmanageable, or uneconomical. As such, oil corporations and national oil companies are developing a wide array of new oils worldwide.