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The unthinkable is happening, the US is on the verge of ending oil and gas imports. Pramit Pal Chaudhuri writes.

india Updated: Jul 06, 2012 21:17 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times

Over the past four decades, the dependence of the United States on imported oil has become a byword about America's failings. A superpower, but one that has to deploy its army on behalf of minuscule Kuwait or listen silently to the abuse Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

Which is why most will be derisive when it is said: the USA is on the brink of energy independence.

US President Barack Obama repeatedly uses the phrase and speaks of slashing US oil imports as a goal "that is reasonable, achievable and necessary." Last year when he did so, comedian Jon Stewart promptly showed clips of the last eight Oval Office residents making similar promises. "We are an unstoppable oil dependency-breaking machine," he cracked. "Unfortunately, the machine runs on oil."

Stewart is amusing. But he does underline how elusive this goal has been for the US in the past.

But Washington may be underestimating the likelihood with which the next avatar of America may emerge as the world's energy provider.
There are intersecting reasons for this.

One is the US's return as an oil producer. This combines two developments: shale oil and mileage efficiency.

The first has been most recently and comprehensively analysed in a Harvard University's Leonardo Maugeri study, "Oil: The Next Revolution."

The study confirms earlier claims by analysts like Daniel Yergin that talk of oil running out is stuff and nonsense. New technology and new investments mean the world is experiencing the start of an enormous surge in oil and gas production. The real surprise is that the US is riding the crest.
Says the report, "The US could produce 11.6 million barrels per day (mpd) of crude oil and [other liquid fuel sources] by 2020, making the country the second largest oil producer in the world after Saudi Arabia."

A mix of technologies now allows the commercial harnessing of shale oil - crude trapped in sedimentary rock. The US has massive shale oil deposits. The Bakken-Three Forks shale formations in North Dakota, for example, have an estimated 900 billion barrels of oil. Saudi Arabia's estimated proven reserves: 700 billion barrels.

The Maugeri study is at the Belfer Centre website at this link. Yergin's arguments are summarized in a Washington Post oped he wrote earlier.

The second development is vehicle emission standards.

US vehicle mileage rates traditionally rise and fall with oil prices. Presidents George W. Bush and Obama began a policy of using the law to lock-in mileage rates so they can only go up.

When implemented, the latest US standards, notes US energy consultants Rhodium Group, will slash US oil consumption by the equivalent of half of Nigeria's entire crude protection today. To put it another way, new mileage rates will mean the US by 2025 will burn 16 per cent less petroleum than it would have and by 2035 this figure would have risen to a staggering 35 per cent. Gas-guzzlers will live on only in Mandarin.

The technical issue of mileage rates are explained in this Rhodium note. Note that part of the petroleum gains would be lost by a much smaller increase in US diesel consumption.

A summary of the likelihood of US energy independence:

The third, and earlier, development has been the rise of shale gas - the same tech mix but used to extract natural gas.
The US is producing so much natural gas today that US prices are a third to a half the rest of the world's. The first shiploads of US gas are now arriving in Europe and Asia.

What shale gas has allowed the US to do is effectively gassify its economy. Industry, heating, electricity and so on are all running on gas. Coal-fired plants are a legacy quickly being phased out. Petrol in America is only about cars and Vaseline.

US gas consumption is rising, but US firms are pulling it out of the ground about 10 times faster than Americans can find means to burn it.
Let's put it another way. Thanks to gas, the US Energy Information Administration calculates that total US consumption of petroleum and other energy liquids like biofuel will rise a mere 700,000 mpd in the quarter century ending 2035. And that doesn't even factor in the planned mileage standards.

Four, as gas conquers America, coal is being sidelined. But the US has among the world's largest coal deposits. So it is has begun exporting it.
Using a 2005 benchmark, these are the annual growth rates of US coal exports: 2007 (70 per cent increase), 2008 (107 per cent), 2010 (71 per cent) and 2011 (49 per cent). The subprime crisis killed growth in 2009, but only for a few quarters. The US is now the world's fourth-largest exporter of coal and, say many analysts, has a decent shot at becoming number one. Already, coal shipping terminals are sprouting along the US's eastern shoreline.

Indian imports of coal from the US are up 65 per cent, to 4.5 million tonnes and rising.

The US is transforming its global energy profile in a manner probably unparalleled in the history of any major country.

When it comes to oil, in two years the US will only need imports from Canada and Mexico, in six years it may be self-sufficient and after that it may be exporting. When it comes to gas, the US has already achieved self-sufficiency. Once new pipelines and terminals come on stream in 2010, the US will be able to export gas by the trillions of cubic metres. When it comes to coal, it could be the world's largest exporter in a decade.

Let it maintain a decent technological foothold in renewables like solar and nuclear and the US will have resurrected itself as a global energy superpower. And it will hold this position not merely in terms of resources. It will be king because of its lead in the technologies revolutionising fossil fuel production: 3-D geological imaging, horizontal mining, hydraulic fracturing and oilfield recovery methods.

Another addition to US power will be an ability to shed a large part of its international baggage. Under the Carter Doctrine of 1980, the US declared that "an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States." A long period of messy involvement has followed. In two year's time, the US has the option of ceasing all its Persian Gulf oil imports, voiding the Carter Doctrine and leaving behind a geopolitical vacuum in what will still be the oil-and-gas hub - for the rest of the world.

First Published: Jul 06, 2012 00:37 IST