The World’s Most Resource-Rich Countries

April 18, 2012 by Mike Sauter

24/7 Wall St. performed a detailed analysis of the 10 most plentiful and valuable natural resources on earth. Using estimates of each country’s total reserves and the market value of these resources, we determined the 10 countries that have the most valuable supplies of natural resources.

Some of these commodities, including uranium, silver and phosphate, are not as valuable as others because of low demand or because they are too rare. However, in the cases of oil, natural gas, timber and coal, reserves can be worth tens of trillions of dollars in some countries, because demand is high and resources are relatively plentiful.

Read the ten most resource-rich countries in the world

Since the beginning of the year, rising prices at the pump have focused attention on crude oil and the global economic recovery. Crude oil remains the largest source of transportation fuel in the world. Because it remains expensive to recover the oil we know about and to find new undiscovered oil, rising pump prices reflect the scarcity or, at least, the potential scarcity of crude.

The value of oil as a scarce natural resource is clear, based on its effect on these countries’ total resource values. Six of the 10 countries with the most valuable overall reserves in the 10 categories combined have among the top 10 oil reserves. For some countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, oil represents more than 85% of the nation’s natural resource worth. In the case of Kuwait, which has the 12th most valuable natural resources overall, oil is its only commodity that falls among the top 10 for reserves.

The supply of oil in contrast to the supply of natural gas, especially in the domestic U.S. market, could not be more stark. New drilling techniques have taken over the industry in the past few years, leading to a supply glut and a corresponding drop in price. It is difficult to predict how long these low prices will last, but it is worth keeping in mind that hydraulically fractured wells produce gas quicker and taper off faster than conventional gas wells. At some point, probably a decade or two away, shale gas production also will decline.

For the time being, gas plays a major role in the world’s resource markets. Six of the 10 countries that have the most valuable natural resource reserves in the world are also within the top 10 that have the most natural gas. Combined, Russia and Iran account for more than 40% of the world’s natural gas.

Lumber prices are recovering after bottoming at just above $200 per contract (110,000 board feet). That’s after falling from as high as around $450 in 2005. The world’s forests, while arguably renewable, are inarguably the world’s most valuable resource after fresh water. Their value here is computed by assuming all the timber is cut and sold for sale. One could make a good argument that as a filter for carbon dioxide emissions and as a producer of fresh water, the world’s timberlands are even more valuable untouched than they are when cut down and sold.

Six of the countries with the most timber are featured on this list. Russia, which tops the list, has the most lumber in the world. Brazil and Canada, which hold the second and third spots for timber, are also on the overall list.

Coal’s big problem is that it’s dirty and there is no cheap way to clean it up. Proposals to cut carbon dioxide emissions add billions to the cost of new coal-fired electricity generation plants and at least hundreds of millions to retrofits. Of the two main types of coal, metallurgical and thermal, demand for the more costly metallurgical coal is determined primarily by demand for steel, which in turn depends on an expanding economy. Lower priced thermal coal has a limited future, but, like crude oil, that limit could be decades away.

Coal is one of the most plentiful and valuable resources for some of the countries on this list, most notably the United States. The U.S.’s total combined resource value is $45 trillion. The estimated value of the country’s coal reserves is approximately two-thirds of that — just shy of $30 trillion. Russia, China and Australia also have ample and valuable quantities of this commodity.

Using the most recent uniformly available data on reserves and global market prices, 24/7 Wall St. calculated the total value of the proved reserves of 10 of the most valuable resources, by country. They include oil, natural gas, coal, timber, gold, silver, copper, uranium, iron ore and phosphate. Using sources, which include the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Bloomberg and Financial Visualizations, 24/7 Wall St. identified the current market price of the 10 resources, as well as the reserves available for those resources. In many cases, including coal, oil and natural gas, prices vary based on type. In these cases, 24/7 Wall st. used the price for what is widely considered the benchmark commodity. When there was no established benchmark, we used an average of the most common types sold.

These are the 10 most resource-rich countries in the world.

10. Venezuela
> Total resource value: $14.3 trillion
> Oil reserves (value): 99.4 billion barrels ($11.7 trillion)
> Natural gas reserves (value): 170.9 cu. ft. ($1.9 trillion)
> Timber reserves (value): not in top 10

Venezuela is among the 10 largest resource holders for iron, natural gas and oil. The South American nation’s natural gas reserves are eighth in the world at 170.9 trillion cubic feet. These reserves account for just over 2.7% of global supply. Venezuela’s oil wealth of 99 billion barrels is the sixth-largest in the world, and account for 7.4% of total global supply. This is based on an estimate that does not include another 97 billion barrels of the country’s extra heavy sour crude, which OPEC included last year in its report on the cartel’s resources. When that estimate is included, Venezuela’s position on this list jumps substantially.

9. Iraq
> Total resource value: $15.9 trillion
> Oil reserves (value): 115 billion barrels ($13.6 trillion)
> Natural gas reserves (value): 111.9 trillion cu. ft. ($1.3 trillion)
> Timber reserves (value): not in top 10

Iraq’s greatest resource is its oil, of which it has 115 billion barrels of proved reserves. This accounts for nearly 9% of the world’s total. Despite being relatively easy to extract, much of these reserves remain untapped because of political differences between the central government and Kurdistan concerning ownership of the oil. Iraq also has among the greatest reserves of phosphate rock in the world, worth more than $1.1 trillion. However, these deposits are completely underdeveloped.

8. Australia
> Total resource value: $19.9 trillion
> Oil reserves (value): not in top 10
> Natural gas reserves (value): not in top 10
> Timber reserves (value): 369 million acres ($5.3 trillion)

Australia’s natural wealth comes from its vast amounts of coal, timber, coal, copper and iron ore. The country is in the top three for total reserves of seven of the resources on our list. Australia has by far the most gold in the world, at 14.3% of global supply. It also has 46% of the global uranium supply, also easily the most. In addition, the country has significant quantities of natural gas offshore the northwest coast, some of which it shares with Indonesia.

7. Brazil
> Total resource value: $21.8 trillion
> Oil reserves (value): not in top 10
> Natural gas reserves (value): not in top 10
> Timber reserves (value): 1.2 billion acres ($17.5 trillion)

Brazil’s sizable gold and uranium reserves largely contribute to its place on this list. It also owns 17% of the world’s iron ore supply, the second most of any nation. Its most valuable natural resource, however, is timber. The country owns 12.3% of the world’s timber supply, valued at $17.45 trillion. In order to maintain consistency in the international numbers we used to make our calculations, we did not include Brazil’s relatively recent discovery of vast quantities of crude oil offshore in what is usually called the presalt. The estimated crude presalt reserves could reach 44 billion barrels, which would propel Brazil’s place up the list.

6. China
> Total resource value: $23 trillion
> Oil reserves (value): not in top 10
> Natural gas reserves (value): not in top 10
> Timber reserves (value): 450 million acres ($6.5 trillion)

The value of China’s resources is heavily based on coal and rare earth minerals. The two resources, combined, provide more than 90% of the country’s total resource value. China also has significant coal deposits, which account for more than 13% of the world’s total. Recently, major shale gas deposits were also discovered in the country. Once estimates of their size become available, China’s status as a world leader in natural resources will further improve.

5. Iran
> Total resource value: $27.3 trillion
> Oil reserves (value): 136.2 billion barrels ($16.1 trillion)
> Natural gas reserves (value): 991.6 trillion cu. ft. ($11.2 trillion)
> Timber reserves (value): not in top 10

Iran shares the Persian Gulf’s gigantic South Pars/North Dome gas field with Qatar. The country is home to nearly 16% of the world’s natural gas reserves — just under one quadrillion cubic feet. The country also has the third-largest amount of oil in the world, with 136.2 billion barrels of proved reserves. This is more than 10% of the world’s oil. The country is having problems realizing the monetary value of its resources due to its estrangement from international markets, stemming from its refusal to abandon its nascent nuclear development program.

4. Canada
> Total resource value: $33.2 trillion
> Oil reserves (value): 178.1 billion barrels ($21 trillion)
> Natural gas reserves (value): not in top 10
> Timber reserves (value): 775 million acres ($11.3 trillion)

Prior to the addition of its oil sands deposits to its proved reserves total, Canada probably would not have even made this list. The oil sands added about 150 billion barrels to Canada’s total in 2009 and 2010. According to most recent estimates, the country now has 178.1 billion barrels, giving it an estimated 17.8% of total global reserves, the second highest behind Saudi Arabia. The country also mines a good deal of the world’s phosphate, even though its deposits of phosphate rock are not among the top 10 in the world. The country also has the second-largest proved reserves of uranium and the third-most available timber.

3. Saudi Arabia
> Total resource value: $34.4 trillion
> Oil reserves (value): 266.7 billion barrels ($31.5 trillion)
> Natural gas reserves (value): 258.5 trillion cu. ft. ($2.9 trillion)
> Timber reserves (value): not in top 10

Saudi Arabia has nearly 20% of the world’s oil — the greatest share among all countries. In fact, all of the country’s resource value is derived from hydrocarbons — either oil or gas. The kingdom has the world’s fifth-largest amount of proved natural gas reserves. Because these resources are depleting, Saudi Arabia eventually will run out of them and lose its high standing on this list. However, this will not happen for several decades.

2. United States
> Total resource value: $45 trillion
> Oil reserves (value): not in top 10
> Natural gas reserves (value): 272.5 trillion cu. ft. ($3.1 trillion)
> Timber reserves (value): 750 million acres ($10.9 trillion)

The U.S. has 31.2% of the world’s proved coal reserves. Worth an estimated $30 trillion, this is by far the most valuable supply of any nation on earth. There is also 750 million forested acres in the country, which are worth nearly $11 trillion. Timber and coal combined are worth roughly 89% of the country’s total natural resource value. The U.S. is also in the top five nations globally for copper, gold and natural gas.

1. Russia
> Total resource value: $75.7 trillion
> Oil reserves (value): 60 billion barrels ($7.08 trillion)
> Natural gas reserves (value): 1,680 trillion cu. ft. ($19 trillion)
> Timber reserves (value): 1.95 billion acres ($28.4 trillion)

Russia is the world’s richest country when it comes to natural resources. It leads all other nations in the size of both its natural gas and timber reserves. The country’s vast size is both a blessing and a curse since economical transportation for gas (pipelines) and for timber (railroads) are significantly costly to build. In addition to having such large gas and timber reserves, Russia has the world’s second-largest deposits of coal and the third-largest deposits of gold. Additionally, it has the second-largest estimated deposits of rare earth minerals, although none are currently being mined.

-Michael B. Sauter, Charles B. Stockdale, Paul Ausick