OPEC reserves: who the hell knows?

The question of OPEC’s reserves looms large in the latest World Energy Outlook.  A small excerpt (with emphasis added):

The world’s total endowment of oil is large enough to support the projected rise in production beyond 2030 … Estimates of remaining proven reserves of oil and natural gas liquids range from about 1.2 to 1.3 trillion barrels (including about 0.2 trillion barrels of non-conventional oil).  They have almost doubled since 1980.  This is enough to supply the world with oil for over 40 years at current rates of consumption. Though most of the increase in reserves has come from revisions made in the 1980s in OPEC countries rather than new discoveries, modest increases have continued since 1990, despite rising consumption.

Sounds like quite a lot rides on the accuracy of those reserves estimates.  But the oil industry is a high tech business, and only a total cynic would suggest that OPEC members would inflate their reserve estimates so as to increase their production quotas – so we can trust the data, right? 

Over to Carola Hoyos and Javier Blas in the FT this morning:

When the Opec oil cartel meets in Cairo tomorrow, some of its most powerful members will argue that the key action the group must take is to keep strictly to the 1.5m barrel a day cuts that it has already announced.

Verifying whether Opec’s countries do just that is far from simple. Knowing how much each country produces is mired in politically motivated dishonesty, secrecy and, in many cases, incompetence.

The most reliable data, used even by Opec countries themselves, come not from the cartel member’s energy ministries, but from … a network of spies watching, binoculars in hand, the movement of tankers in and out of the world’s biggest export terminals.