Bahrain has struck gold — black gold, that is. The insular Arabic country has just announced the discovery of its biggest oil field since 1932. The new shale oil finding dramatically outscales the country’s entire reserves.

Bahrain’s skyline. Image credits: Wadiia / Wikipedia.

Bahrain was one of the first Arabic countries to exploit oil in 1932, and it was also one of the first to run out of it. Unlike its neighbors, Bahrain boasts a much smaller oil production, being the smallest oil production the Arabian Gulf — but this reservoir might change things.

The reservoir lies off the country’s west coast, in the Khaleej al-Bahrain basin. Bahrain’s oil minister and energy executives detailed the find at a press conference, saying that the oil, along with deep natural gas, can be exploited within five years. The ministers announced a separate discovery of gas reserves below Bahrain’s main gas reservoir, which can greatly support the country’s growing demand for fossil fuels.

“Initial analysis demonstrates the find is at substantial levels, capable of supporting the long-term extraction of tight oil [light crude] and deep gas,” said Bahrain’s minister of oil, Shaikh Mohamed bin Khalifa al-Khalifa.

So you can get a sense of scale for how big this 80-billion-gallon reservoir really is, in 2016, Texas geophysicists reported discovering the biggest shale reservoir in the US, and that was 20 billion gallons. However, the US still has, by far, the greatest hydrocarbon shale potential in the world. A 2016 estimate found that the total world resources of oil shale is equivalent to a yield of 6.05 trillion barrels of shale oil, with the US accounting for more than 80% of that.

However, shale oil isn’t that simple. The economic feasibility of shale oil extraction is highly dependent on the price of conventional oil. In other words, shale oil is expensive and can only make sense when the price of oil is high. Furthermore, shale reservoirs are notoriously difficult to recover. They’re deep, they typically require horizontal as well as vertical drilling, and generally, recovery rates are well below 50%. In addition, the environmental impact of shale oil mining is dramatic. It generates more emissions than conventional drilling, generates significant amounts of waste, requires extensive land and water use, and has been linked to earthquakes and contamination. So while, for Bahrain, this reservoir can be a massive economic boom, shale gas is definitely not the gateway to a sustainable future.

Bahrain has an open economy, and one of the highest ranking currency units in the world. Petroleum and natural gas are the only significant natural resources in Bahrain, but the country has greatly diversified its economy in the past decade, investing heavily in the banking and tourism sectors.

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