Shifting Volumetric Imaginaries of Oil Potential: Mexico’s Chicontepec Basin as Investible Asset, Reserve Replacement, and Oilfield Services Zone

Abstract / Resumen / Resumo

In 1978, Petróleos Mexicanos first announced reserve estimates for the Chicontepec Basin, calling it “one of the largest [hydrocarbon fields] in the Western Hemisphere” with 42% of Mexico’s crude oil reserves. Optimism for the basin’s potential was particularly high after the supergiant Cantarell field peaked in 2004 and rising global oil prices made unconventional deposits, such as the Chicontepec, economically viable. However, by 2017, oil recovery in the Chicontepec totaled less than 1% of the estimated total-oil-in-place. In this paper, I draw from scholarship on volume, resource making, and resource geography to examine the origins and implications of Chicontepec reserve estimates. I argue that because subsurface oil volumes are complex, contested, and contrived, they require techniques of visualization and calculation to render them investible. In the Chicontepec this involved a geophysical baseline study that created an internally homogenous subsurface volume, a volumetric calculative method that had political-economic connotations, and a revised reserve classification method that could attract international capital. After 2004, manipulating the reserve replacement potential of the unconventional Chicontepec also enabled transnational oilfield services firms to gain territorial footholds in the region, as well as shift oil potential from production to field development. By thinking through volumetric assessments and oil potential outcomes in the Chicontepec, this paper contributes to scholarship on resource geographies of the Mexican oil industry, broader international debates concerning the social constitution of hydrocarbon reserves, and the role of unconventionals as reserve replacements.