NEW YORK — The United States is the closest it has been in almost 20 years to achieving energy self-sufficiency, a goal the nation has been pursuing since the 1973 Arab oil embargo triggered a recession and led to lines at gasoline stations.
Domestic oil output is the highest in eight years. The U.S. is producing so much natural gas that, where the government warned four years ago of a critical need to boost imports, it now may approve an export terminal. Methanex Corp., the world’s biggest methanol maker, said it will dismantle a factory in Chile and reassemble it in Louisiana to take advantage of low natural gas prices. And higher mileage standards and federally mandated ethanol use, along with slow economic growth, have curbed demand.
The result: The U.S. has reversed a two-decade-long decline in energy independence, increasing the proportion of demand met from domestic sources over the last six years to an estimated 81 percent through the first 10 months of 2011, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from the Department of Energy. That would be the highest level since 1992.
“For 40 years, only politicians and the occasional author in Popular Mechanics magazine talked about achieving energy independence,” said Adam Sieminski, who has been nominated by President Barack Obama to head the U.S. Energy Information Administration. “Now it doesn’t seem such an outlandish idea.”
The transformation, which could see the country become the world’s top energy producer by 2020, has implications for the economy and national security — boosting household incomes, jobs and government revenue; cutting the trade deficit; enhancing manufacturers’ competitiveness; and allowing greater flexibility in dealing with unrest in the Middle East.
U.S. energy self-sufficiency has been steadily rising since 2005, when it hit a low of 70 percent, the data compiled by Bloomberg show. Domestic crude oil production rose 3.6 percent last year to an average 5.7 million barrels a day, the highest since 2003, according to the Energy Department. Natural gas output climbed to 22.4 trillion cubic feet in 2010 from 20.2 trillion in 2007, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission warned of the need for more imports. Prices have fallen more than 80 percent since 2008.
At the same time, the efficiency of the average U.S. passenger vehicle has helped limit demand. It increased to 29.6 miles per gallon in 2011 from 19.9 mpg in 1978, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The last time the U.S. achieved energy independence was in 1952. While it still imported some petroleum, the country’s exports, including of coal, more than offset its imports.
The expansion in oil and natural gas production isn’t without a downside. Environmentalists say hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — in which a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is shot underground to blast apart rock and free fossil fuels — is tainting drinking water.
The drop in natural gas prices is also making the use of alternative energy sources such as solar, wind and nuclear power less attractive, threatening to link the U.S.’s future even more to hydrocarbons to run the world’s largest economy.
Still, those concerns probably won’t be enough to outweigh the benefits of greater energy independence.
Stepped-up oil output and restrained consumption will lessen demand for imports, cutting the nation’s trade deficit and buttressing the dollar, said Sieminski, who is currently chief energy economist at Deutsche Bank in Washington.
With the price of a barrel of oil at about $100, a drop of 4 million barrels a day in oil imports — which he said could happen by 2020, if not before — would shave $145 billion off the deficit. Through the first 11 months of last year, the trade gap was $513 billion, according to the Commerce Department. Crude for March delivery settled at $96.91 a barrel yesterday on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
The impact on national security also could be significant as the U.S. relies less on oil from the Mideast. Persian Gulf countries accounted for 15 percent of U.S. imports of crude oil and petroleum products in 2010, down from 23 percent in 1999.
“The past image of the United States as helplessly dependent on imported oil and gas from politically unstable and unfriendly regions of the world no longer holds,” former Central Intelligence Agency Director John Deutch told an energy conference last month.
That dependence was underscored in October 1973, when Arab oil producers declared an embargo in retaliation for U.S. help for Israel in the Yom Kippur war. The U.S. economy contracted at an annualized 3.5 percent rate in the first quarter of the next year. Stock prices plunged, with the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index dropping more than 40 percent in the year following the embargo.
Car owners were forced to line up at gasoline stations to buy fuel. President Richard Nixon announced in December that because of the energy crisis the lights on the national Christmas tree wouldn’t be turned on.
Today, signs of what former North Dakota senator Byron Dorgan says could be a “new normal” in energy are proliferating. The U.S. likely became a net exporter of refined oil products last year for the first time since 1949. And it will probably become a net exporter of natural gas early in the next decade, said Howard Gruenspecht, the acting administrator of the EIA, the statistical arm of the Energy Department.
Cheniere Energy Partners may receive a construction and operating permit as early this month from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for the first new plant capable of exporting natural gas by ship to be built since 1969 in the U.S. Houston-based Cheniere said it expects the $6 billion plant to export as much as 2.6 billion cubic feet of gas per day.
The shale-gas technology that’s boosting U.S. natural gas production was spawned in the Barnett Shale around Dallas and Fort Worth by George P. Mitchell, who was chairman and chief executive officer of Mitchell Energy & Development Corp.
Helped by a provision inserted in the 1980 windfall oil profits tax bill to encourage drilling for unconventional natural gas, the Houston-based oil man pursued a trial-and-error approach for years before succeeding in the late-1990s. The fracking method he devised cracked the rock deep underground, propping open small seams that allowed natural gas trapped in tiny pores to flow into the well and up to the surface.
Recognizing that Mitchell was on to something, Devon Energy Corp. bought his company in 2002 for about $3.3 billion and combined it with its own expertise in directional drilling, a method derived from offshore exploration.
Traditional vertical drilling bores straight down, like a straw stuck straight in the earth. Directional drilling bends the straw, boring horizontally sometimes a mile or more through the richest layer of rock, allowing more of the trapped fuel to make it into the well. This slice of rock is like the kitchen, where ancient plants and creatures came under so much pressure that they cooked into natural gas and oil.
The oil boom a century ago tapped reservoirs of fuel that rose out of those layers and got trapped in large pockets closer to the earth’s surface, or used vertical wells that could get out only a portion of the fuel stored in the rock. The new technology has Devon and its competitors hunting beneath decades-old oil plays long thought depleted.
About an hour’s drive north from where Devon’s soon-to-be- completed new glass headquarters towers 50 stories above downtown Oklahoma City, the company is exploring for oil in the Mississippian and other formations, where oil majors once made their fortunes. It’s racing companies such as Chesapeake Energy and SandRidge Energy to buy leases and drill wells.
Crude production in the U.S. is already increasing. Within three years, domestic output could reach 7 million barrels a day, the highest in 20 years, said Andy Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates in Houston, a consulting firm. The U.S. produced 5.9 million barrels of crude oil a day in December, while consuming 18.5 million barrels of petroleum products, according to the Energy Department.
North Dakota — the center of the so-called tight-oil transformation — is now the fourth largest oil-producing state, behind Texas, Alaska and California.
The growth in oil and gas output means the U.S. will overtake Russia as the world’s largest energy producer in the next eight years, said Jamie Webster, senior manager for the markets and country strategy group at PFC Energy, a Washington- based consultant.
While U.S. consumers would still be susceptible to surges in global oil prices, “we’d end up sending some of that cash to North Dakota” rather than to Saudi Arabia, said Richard Schmalensee, a professor of economics and management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
The shale gas expansion is already benefiting the economy. In 2010, the industry supported more than 600,000 jobs, according to a report that consultants IHS Global Insight prepared for America’s Natural Gas Alliance, a group that represents companies such as Devon Energy and Chesapeake Energy.
More than half were in the companies directly involved and their suppliers, with the balance coming at restaurants, hotels and other firms. By 2035, the number of jobs supported by the industry will rise to more than 1.6 million, IHS said. Some 360,000 will be directly employed in the shale gas industry.
But some companies are hurting from the shale gas glut. With abundant supplies making it the cheapest option for new power generation, Exelon scrapped plans to expand capacity at two nuclear plants, while Michigan utility CMS Energy canceled a $2 billion coal plant after deciding it wasn’t financially viable. NextEra Energy, the largest U.S. wind energy producer, shelved plans for new U.S. wind projects next year.
Investors also are cooling on wind investment, partly because of falling power prices. T. Boone Pickens, one of wind power’s biggest boosters, decided to focus on promoting natural gas-fueled trucking fleets after dropping plans for a Texas wind farm in 2010.
“Wind on its own without incentives is far from economic unless gas is north of $6.50,” said Travis Miller, a Chicago- based utility analyst at Morningstar Inc.
While the U.S. will still have to pay attention to issues such as Israel’s security and Islamic fundamentalism in the Mideast, which could affect oil prices, it won’t have to be as worried about its supplies.
Carlos Pascual, special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs at the State Department, suggested at a Council on Foreign Relations conference in December that the increased production in the U.S. and elsewhere gives Washington more “maneuverability” in using sanctions to deal with Iran and its nuclear aspirations.
The increased U.S. production of oil and natural gas is a “positive supply shock” for the economy and for national security, said Philip Verleger, a former director of the office of energy policy at the Treasury Department and founder of PKVerleger, a consulting firm in Aspen, Colo.
“We aren’t there yet, but it looks like we’re blundering into a solution for the energy problem,” he said.
Julie Johnsson in Chicago, Mark Chediak in San Francisco, Jack Kaskey in Houston, David Mildenberg in Austin, Alaa Shahine in Dubai, and Katarzyna Klimasinska, Mark Drajem and Jim Snyder in Washington contributed to this report.