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Major changes from oil revolution
American technology, Asian demand on course to reshape global politics
Second of two parts.
For Americans who came of age in an era marked by worries about scarce world oil supplies, dominant international oil cartels and unrest in the Middle East, the times are changing — quickly.
Technologies bred in America are unlocking reserves of oil that for decades were considered out of reach. With oil production from shale rock, oil sands and deep-sea drilling booming in the U.S., Canada, Brazil and elsewhere, worries about Middle East-based oil cartels and vulnerable Persian Gulf supply lines are close to becoming things of the past.
“Until recently, the U.S. was importing a significant chunk of its oil from the Middle East,” in particular, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, said Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency. “But we expect the U.S. will not need Middle East oil sometime soon. This has implications for international oil markets and beyond that.”
Yet even as America’s energy resurgence enables the nation to dabble with the prospect of energy independence for the first time in a half-century and cast off a long-standing preoccupation with the oil cartel OPEC, China and other emerging titans are stepping to the fore with fast-rising energy demands that increasingly put them at the behest of OPEC’s producers. The combination is shaking up long-held assumptions about how U.S. political leaders should deal with the world’s most indispensable commodity.
Energy specialist Daniel Yergin recently checked off the fast-paced changes that have altered the outlook and astonished longtime observers including himself: U.S. oil imports have fallen from 62 percent to 40 percent of consumption since 2005 as a result of a dramatic turn toward conservation and fuel efficiency, coupled with domestic oil production that is the fastest-growing in the world. Canada — the “Saudi Arabia to the North” — has become the most important outside supplier to the U.S. and recently surpassed Libya as a major oil exporter, while Brazil is leveraging its huge offshore reserves to become a global energy powerhouse.
“The results of this hemispheric upsurge will have far-reaching consequences — nothing less than a rebalancing of world oil,” Mr. Yergin said, noting that China now imports more oil from the Persian Gulf than does the United States.
“Much less oil will come from the Eastern Hemisphere to the Western Hemisphere, and much more Middle Eastern oil will flow to Asia,” he said.
The $100-a-barrel shock
Mr. Yergin, vice chairman of the global business think tank IHS Inc., traces the sea change to the surge in energy prices nearly a decade ago when the world was consumed by worries about the scarcity of oil supplies because of the rise of China and other emerging markets, creating millions of middle-class consumers who were eager to make their first car purchases and emulate the Western lifestyle. Premium crude prices soared to more than $100 a barrel for the first time, peaking at $145 in July 2008.
Such prices provided incentives for oil companies to find ways to tap harder-to-get resources such as North Dakota’s Bakken shale and Alberta’s oil sands that had been uneconomical to obtain in years past. Extraction suddenly became profitable at the higher price levels, using costly and complex technologies developed in what Mr. Yergin describes as a “great bubbling” of energy innovation.
“Something very dramatic happened in world oil in 2004. We left behind a world of $20 oil and entered the world of $100 oil,” which corresponds with gasoline prices of $3 to $4 a gallon on average, Mr. Yergin said in an interview with McKinsey & Co. last year. “What happened was the recognition of the impact of emerging market countries and what their demand would be, and that growth in world oil demand would shift from the traditional industrial countries to these emerging markets. That has carried us to a new higher price plane” and launched the drive to exploit huge unconventional oil reserves that is now bearing fruit in North America.
The higher prices of the past decade kick-started the trend toward energy conservation that has shaved billions of dollars off U.S. oil trade deficits. The trend promises to accelerate as the Obama administration ratchets up fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks.
Technologies and materials also are making possible average miles per gallon of 50 or higher in cars and sport utility vehicles.
The combination of fuel savings and increased production from unconventional sources has allowed Americans to entertain hopes for energy independence. Although it will take “heroic” efforts to achieve, Mr. Yergin said, oil independence is no longer just a “chimera” held out by politicians as it once was.
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