Ancient Maps Are Unlocking The Secret To The World’s Hidden Oil Reserves

The former supercontinent of Pangaea holds the key to future oil discoveries.

Ancient Maps Are Unlocking The Secret To The World’s Hidden Oil Reserves
[Illustration: MichaelTaylor via Shutterstock]

After decades of predictions that the world is close to peak oil, it’s pretty clear that isn’t true. Fracking, tar sands, and new offshore wells are all flowing freely. The oil industry continues to develop new exploration techniques–and one of the most popular right now is a little like putting together an ancient jigsaw puzzle.


A fascinating article from Quartz explains how oil companies are looking back 200 million years to Pangaea, the supercontinent that once made up all land on Earth. Brazil was once next to Nigeria; Washington, D.C., was once next to Western Sahara. And it turns out that if you discover oil somewhere–say, Ghana–there’s a very good chance that you’ll find more of it across the ocean in the spot that once was connected.

The Quartz article tells the story of the hunt for oil in Nova Scotia, where the government is desperate to climb out of ongoing economic depression–thanks in part to the fact that the province seemed to be running out of oil to drill. A local government official decided to do some new research based on the fact that offshore oil was discovered in Nova Scotia’s former neighbor, Morrocco.

Since oil had been found in the deep waters offshore from Morocco, MacMullin had heard from experts, it stood to reason, geologically speaking, that it must be present in Nova Scotia, too. The two were “analogs” of one another. By starting at the very birth of the conditions for the creation of hydrocarbons, they might locate Nova Scotia’s petroleum trove.

It’s not as simple as matching up continents on a map. Paleogeologists (aka “paleomagicians,” in the industry) also have to find more evidence that oil actually exists in a certain location. But starting with the puzzle of Pangaea has already led to several new discoveries: Oil in Brazil led to a new discovery in Angola, oil in Ghana led to a new discovery in French Guiana, and the list goes on.

In Nova Scotia, though the first new offshore well won’t be dug until later this year, the evidence is strong that there may be more oil deep at sea than in the entire province over the last half-century.

While that might be good news for Nova Scotia’s current economy, which has gone through previous collapses of fishing, lumber, and coal industries, it’s terrible news for the environment. If we’re going to avoid catastrophic climate change, all of the oil that’s still in the ground has to stay there.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.