Oil--who owns it and who needs it--is often cited as a reason why countries go to war with some nations and remain allies with others.  This natural resource is the “golden egg” and those countries that have it should be the world's wealthiest.  Or so you'd think. (For basic background, see Investopedia's Oil and Gas Industry Primer.)

But having the oil does not always translate into selling the oil.  The countries that have the highest oil reserves (which means they have found proven sources of oil in the ground) are not always the ones that have the highest oil production (which means they are able to “harvest” the oil from the ground and sell it).  There are a host of geological, geographical and political reasons why having the highest reserves doesn’t always sync with having the highest production.  But in essence, if the reserves could be harvested, then these countries should be in for a windfall and may make very good investment candidates. 

Top Eight Highest Oil Reserve Countries

OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) is the largest oil “trade group”--its member nations own more than 80% of the proven oil reserves. Only two of the world's top eight oil reserve countries (Canada and Russia) are not part of OPEC.  The following chart details the top oil reserve countries and their percent of proven world reserves

Country

% Proven Crude Oil Reserves (in billion barrels)

Venezuela

20.2%

Saudi Arabia

18.0%

Canada

11.8%

Iran

10.6%

Iraq

9.5%

Kuwait

6.9%

United Arab Emirates

6.6%

Russia

4.1%

Source: OPEC & EIA 

Do the Top Reserve Countries Land in the Top Production Countries?

Having a large proven reserve in some ways can be irrelevant if political, economic or technology issues impede the ability to bring those reserves to the surface.  And because of these issues, a dichotomy exists between the countries with the highest reserves and those producing (harvesting) the greatest percent of oil.  The top three oil producing countries are Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United States.  While Russia and Saudi Arabia are top reserve countries, the United States is not (with only 1.8% of proven reserves).  And Venezuela, the top reserve country, is only the 14th highest producer worldwide.  Venezuela is in this position for three reasons: first its reserves are hard and very expensive to extract because of the type of oil and location; second its state-owed exploration and production company spends very little investment to get this oil; and third foreign companies are wary of making an investment in the country because the political landscape has been very negative towards foreigners.   

Bottom Line

In the long run, having proven reserves that are yet to be produced can provide economic prosperity to countries as technological, political or other issues which impede production are resolved.  But until that time, having reserves means nothing if you cannot produce!