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Saudi Arabia's massive oil and gas reserves are even bigger than previously reported, according to an outside assessment commissioned by the kingdom.
The independent audit not only revised Saudi reserves higher, but may help put to rest skepticism over the nation's oil and gas wealth, which has persisted in some corners of the market for years. It also shows national oil giant Saudi Aramco is taking strides towards transparency as it continues to consider a stock market debut.
On Wednesday, Saudi Energy Minister and Aramco Chairman Khalid al-Falih said the kingdom expects the initial public offering for Aramco to take place in 2021, following a delay.
State-controlled Aramco had 263.1 billion barrels of oil waiting to be tapped at the end of 2017, according to Dallas-based petroleum consulting firm DeGolyer and MacNaughton. That is 2.2 billion barrels more than Aramco reported in its last annual review.
Aramco's natural gas reserves total 319.5 trillion cubic feet, according to the audit. The company, which is not a major player in the gas market, previously reported 302.3 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves.
Saudi Arabia has additional reserves in an area along the border with Kuwait that has sat idle due to a dispute between the neighbors. Including this so-called Neutral Zone, Saudi oil reserves total 268.5 billion barrels, DeGolyer and MacNaughton concluded. That compares with an earlier estimate of 266.3 billion barrels.
The Saudis commissioned the audit as part of their plan to publicly list shares of Aramco, the world's largest energy company. The kingdom hoped to attract a $2 trillion valuation and raise $100 billion to underwrite Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's economic transformation plan, Vision 2030.
The initial public offering has at least temporarily been shelved while Aramco pursues a deal to purchase Saudi petrochemicals company SABIC. Indecision over key aspects of the offering have also caused delays, according to news reports.
Falih, the Saudi energy minister, on Wednesday highlighted what the audit means for Aramco's valuation.
"This certification underscores why every barrel we produce is the most profitable in the world, and why we believe Saudi Aramco is the world's most valuable company and indeed the world's most important," Falih said in a statement.
The revision is "not an insignificant amount of oil," says global energy policy analyst, Ellen Wald. But in her view, the bigger news is that the audit confirms what the Saudis have long communicated to the market: that they control more than 260 billion barrels of reserves.
The figures have long faced skepticism for several reasons. Saudi Arabia has historically eschewed independent audits, and its reserves have remained roughly unchanged for decades despite the Saudis pumping huge amounts of crude.
The 2005 book "Twilight in the Desert," which claimed Saudi production was peaking and oil prices would soon surge, also fueled suspicion, says Wald, the author of "Saudi Inc: The Arabian Kingdom's Pursuit of Profit and Power."
"Whether they have 260 or 266 billion barrels isn't really the issue," she said. "The point is that they had DeGolyer and MacNaughton, which is a very respected source, do an audit."
"I think it's designed to put to rest the controversy that's always plagued them since the publication of 'Twilight in the Desert.'"