Petroleum Geology: What is a Super Basin?

There is a trend away from frontier oil and gas exploration towards finding more in less risky proven basins, fuelled by learning gleaned from studying the most successful petroleum basins in the world.
This article appeared in Vol. 16, No. 5 - 2019


Petroleum Geology: What is a Super Basin?

We are all familiar with Parke A. Dickey’s quote about finding oil, the central part of which is “… sometimes, we find oil in an old place with a new idea” – and that just about sums up the reason we need to study super basins: the most important and prolific basins in the world.

The term ‘super basin’ was coined by Bob Fryklund and Pete Stark of IHS Markit in 2016. They defined such a basin as an established producer with at least 5 Bboe produced and at least the same volume of recoverable remaining reserves; two or more petroleum systems or source rocks; stacked reservoirs; existing infrastructure and oil field services; and good access to markets. This is definitely all about old places and new ideas – primarily, but not exclusively, technological ones.

Out of a total of about 870 petroleum-bearing basins in the world, there are technically about 100 of such richly endowed basins, spanning every continent. Of these, the top 30 super basins (48 contiguous sub-basins) contain about 57% of the world’s giant oil fields. “This means that the world’s richest super basins contain ten times the number of giant fields (the ultimate exploration prize) relative to all petroleum-bearing basins. In addition, it is thought that the top 25 super basins have the remaining potential to deliver many billions of oil and gas and are therefore key to our future energy mix,” says Charles A. Sternbach, President, Star Creek Energy.

  • © IHS Markit.

The study and understanding of these super producers is important as they give us insights into other basins. Because many super basins have undergone an energy renaissance within the last ten years resulting from recent technological innovations, their study can help us identify areas which, with similar treatment, could also move into the super basin bracket. To facilitate locating them, Charles instituted the AAPG Global Super Basin Leadership Conference when he was AAPG President in 2018, because, as he says, “Basin masters compare global geoscience architectures for actionable intelligence. These insights fuel abundant and affordable energy.”

What Geological Elements Define a Super Basin?

What geological elements define a super basin? “Well, firstly, it must have a world-class petroleum system,” Charles observes. “A rich source rock buried by a thick sedimentary section is a prerequisite; in fact many super basins contain more than one great source rock that has attained peak oil and gas thermal maturity. 

  • A West Texas pump in the Permian super basin. Source: searmstrong/

The US Permian Basin, in many ways the archetypal super basin, actually has four source zones. Source rocks often occur in the toe of slope distal facies clinoforms, as, for example, the Utica shale in the US Appalachian Basin and the Vaca Muerta shale in the Neuquén Basin in Argentina. The petroleum systems must be capped by a regional seal, which is often an evaporite, or by a series of seals. Due to hydrocarbon generation and effective trapping, super basins may have components of high pressure in all or in parts of the basin.”

Super basins are found in several structural settings. The stacked reservoirs needed for a giant field are a classic feature of the foreland basin, and sure enough, a number of super basins, including the West Canadian Sedimentary, Iraq and the Neuquén Basins, fall within this category, but super basins are also found in a range of other settings. The Algerian Illizi Basin and the West Siberian Basin, for example, are intracratonic, the latter in a gentle down-warp associated with a tectonically active fold and thrust belt, while the Zagros is a classic thrust belt and the North Sea a rift basin. Super basins are also found in the passive margin settings of the Gulf of Mexico and the Arabian Platform, characterised by thick sedimentary accumulations.

  • The Zagros Mountains, one of the world’s great super basins, has over 200 Bbo remaining. © Attila Jandi |

Technology as Game Changer

Many super basins have experienced a major renaissance in recent years, almost always as a result of technological innovations. The offshore areas of the Gulf of Mexico and Brazil, for example, have both been revolutionised by improvements in seismic imaging, enabling the visualisation and exploitation of the massive pre-salt resources which lie below the shallow, well-explored post-salt plays. Enhanced imaging has also improved understanding in the North Sea around basement highs.

Onshore, hydraulic fracturing has similarly revolutionised the Permian and a number of other US basins, allowing the exploitation of unconventional reservoirs in a truly game-changing manner, both for the basins and the country, and pushing some previously relatively small producing basins into super basin status. A resurgence in the gas and LNG industry enhanced by technology has also been seen in the Carnarvon super basin in Australia. 

  • Super basins (excluding Permian) remaining and incremental oil resources, sorted by hydrocarbon sector entry category and potential incremental oil. © IHS Markit.

Charles notes: “It could be said that super basins are well known basins where technology has proved the game changer. Some of this may be due to the fact that they are large basins, with the scale and infrastructure to innovate and develop new technology, but the results will be appropriate to basins of all sizes – another reason for their importance and value. The Permian Basin, for example, offers hard-won lessons learned over more than a decade that include addressing needs for transport, water sources and disposal, sand shortages and issues around gas-oil ratios. Building on this experience, other basins and multiple companies can leapfrog ahead.”

Thinking Differently

Bob Fryklund believes that developing the concept of the super basin is important, as it requires us to think about things and explore in a different way. “The old way of exploring,” he explains, “was play based, reservoir by reservoir. It involved broad portfolios and lots of assets, in possibly hundreds of different basins, chasing short-term objectives. Technology was an enhancer, but didn’t have the significant input into production it has in a super basin.

“In contrast, the super basin way of thinking is to view the basin as an ecosystem, considering where the demand is coming from as well as how to produce efficiently,” he says. “Thinking differently means thinking in 3D rather than concentrating on individual single layers, because it is important to fully understand the volumetric richness of the multiple stacked plays that characterise a super basin like the Permian. Importantly, these stacked plays can be both conventional and unconventional, as is seen in many US super basins. In addition, commerciality is in the driving seat in the super basin, integrated with the geoscience. This is giving rise to the single basin specialist company, instead of the multi-basin broad portfolios which typified the ‘old’ way of exploring,” Bob adds. 

Technology is used as a driver in the super basin; for example, just the simple use of horizontal wells can enable recovery from a previously disregarded conventional play, particularly when there is access to the infrastructure resulting from the much larger levels of production from the basin. The adoption of hydraulic stimulation, new completion and drilling techniques, and innovative seismic imaging technologies have all helped to unlock potential and push a basin into super basin status.

Another feature of a primary super basin is that it can be seen as a regional or even global disrupter. As discussed in a recent issue of GEO ExPro, the great South American super basin, the Neuquén, having been a conventional producer for 100 years, has had a completely new lease of life in the last decade by becoming a commercial unconventional producer – the first outside the USA – which means that Argentina is now an oil exporter: definitely a disrupter.

Incredible Potential

A characteristic of the super basin is its incredible richness, measured as the total volume of hydrocarbons per square kilometre; the Central Arabian Basin, for example, holds nearly 2 MMbo/km2. The potential still locked in these basins is considerable. IHS Markit estimates that total uplift in the top 24 super basins is in the region of 779 Bbo, 42% of which comes from the Central Arabian Basin. However, two-thirds of this – 529 Bbo – is located in basins where for political, developmental or geographic reasons it is, at the moment at least, hard to access, such as East Venezuela, Zagros and West Siberia. Bearing in mind that recently we have been discovering a mere 8 Bbo a year from new ventures, this is a massive resource, even if we only look at the 79 Bbo which IHS classifies as ‘relatively easy to access’.

So where is the next Permian Basin to be found? By studying super basins and comparing them to analogous areas, new prospect and play ideas will arise which may propel an as yet unknown basin towards this favoured status.

Further Reading Relating to Super Basins

Or, just style 'super basins' into the search bar at the top of any page on

Innovative Seismic Data Processing in a Super Giant Oil Basin
Hermann Lebit, Sriram Arasanipalai, Jeff Tilton and Pascal Ollagnon; PGS
Innovative seismic processing techniques by PGS deliver better fault definition and seismic stratigraphy for improved reservoir characterization in the Santos Basin.
This article appeared in Vol. 16, No. 2 - 2019

The Permian Basin - A Brief Overview
Thomas Smith
The Permian Basin region is 400 km wide and 480 km long and has produced over 35 billion barrels of oil since 1921, currently accounting for 17% of total US production.
This article appeared in Vol. 9, No. 6 - 2013


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