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U.S. Poised For Energy Self-Sufficiency

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Before the close of the decade, the United States could become the world’s top producer of oil and natural gas. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), increasing domestic production combined with domestic energy efficiency could leave the country “all but [energy] self-sufficient.” The U.S. could even become a net oil exporter by 2030, shifting a trend that has been a hallmark in the energy debate for decades.

Last year, about 60% of crude oil processed in U.S. oil refineries was imported from other countries. While a significant amount of crude oil and refined petroleum is also exported, in 2011 America still faced a 45% net import level.

But, this 45% level was actually the lowest seen in the U.S. since 1995. Thanks in large part to the shale oil boom, the country has been able to increase its total oil production since 2008, a fact cited several times by President Obama during his re-election campaign. Coupled with the Administration’s successful bid for increased vehicle efficiency standards, the nation’s dependence on oil from the Middle East could be drastically diminished. According to the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2012 report, “by around 2020, the United States is projected to become the largest global oil producer,” over-taking Saudi Arabia and allowing the country to become a net oil exporter by 2030.

U.S. natural gas production is a similar story, though with an ever shorter timeline. Hydraulic fracturing, despite concerns regarding groundwater contamination, has caused a surge in domestic natural gas production. As a result, the country could surpass Russia and become the world’s largest natural gas producer in just 5 years.

According to Fatih Bitol, IEA’s chief-economist “[the] foundations of the global energy systems are shifting.” But, the orgaization is quick to say that this shift is mixed news with respect to growing environmental concerns surrounding global climate change.

Easier access to more oil and gas could cause a surge in global greenhouse gas emission levels, which could trump recent reductions seen in the U.S. and Europe. While natural gas is less greenhouse gas-intensive than the coal it would likely replace, the net impact could still be higher global emissions.

This possibility is already becoming a reality in the coal industry. As the fossil-fuel has become increasingly unpopular in the face of cheap natural gas in the United States and environmental concerns, American coal producers haven’t stopped mining. But, this resource is increasingly being shipped overseas where Chinese and Indian markets are happy to absorb the excess.

In turn, this global rebound effect could result in an even larger challenge to those working to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.  According to the IEA, this could hinder the world’s ability to achieve the “2 degree scenario.” Further, as exported fuels could be burned in countries without stringent environmental regulations, a geographic shift in coal consumption could lead to increasing public health concerns.

Regardless of these concerns, one message is clear – this “steadily changing [role] of North America in global energy trade” as projected by the IEA would have significant implications for world energy markets.

To read more about the International Energy Agency’s latest “World Energy Outlook” report – go here.

Melissa C. Lott About the Author: An engineer and researcher who works at the intersection of energy, environment, technology, and policy. Follow on Twitter @mclott.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. geojellyroll 10:35 am 11/13/2012

    This story has gone viral and, as usual, lapped up by Scienctific American. The level of science (or non-science) is getting more pathetic.

    As a geologist in the energy industry I say….BALONEY.

    The USA will NOT be self sufficient in energy by 2020 or 2030 or 2040.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Percival 12:43 pm 11/13/2012

    geojellyroll has it at least partly right- America cannot achieve energy self-sufficiency ever solely by increasing oil and gas production. Balancing our energy budget will require reducing “spending” as well as increasing “income”. A lot of people will have to get over their NIMBY attitude toward solar and wind energy facilities, and energy consumption in general will have to drop even more than it has due to such things as vehicle emissions standards changes, home insulation improvements, LEDs replacing other light sources, and so on.

    Elsewhere (Al-Jazeera) an article on the same topic mentions a political strategic factor Asia will have to consider- how to protect oil shipments from the Middle East, just as the U. S. has had to. I’m also wondering if China will replace the U. S. as the “Great Satan”…

    (Is a political comment inappropriate in the scientific arena? I don’t think so, since politics so strongly influences energy availability, and scientific enterprises like fusion research tend to be very energy-intensive. It would be nice if extremists lost interest in causing another 9-11 in America, but I hope we don’t have to take austerity so far that we can’t afford enough spare energy to operate such Big Science efforts as research reactors.)

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  3. 3. sethdayal 1:53 pm 11/13/2012

    “While natural gas is less greenhouse gas-intensive than the coal it would likely replace”

    Another shameful Big Oil infomercial from Sciam.

    As our shill Lott well knows but never states, gas is a worse global warming producer than even coal because of the massive methane leaks within the production and distribution system. This is real science peer reviewed and published in reputable journal not the Big Oil based junk science pushed at SCIAM.

    Gas is not clean energy killing thousands of Americans annually with its noxious emissions still bad but less than of the tens of thousands done in by coal.

    Link to this
  4. 4. crmazza 2:23 pm 11/13/2012

    The Tres Amigas SuperStation at Clovis, NM is slated to start operation sometime in 2013. This DC link will allow power sharing between the three major power interconnects in the US; Eastern, Western, and Texas Interconnects.

    West Texas has vast potential for wind generation, but it’s too much for the Texas interconnect. that limitation will soon be history when Tres Amigos is on-line.

    Increased conservation coupled with horizontal drilling and hydrualic fracturing, as well as Tres Amigos and a pathway to energy independence becomes apparent.

    Link to this
  5. 5. SidAbma 2:36 pm 11/14/2012

    America is so blessed to have this much natural gas, and I am sure that regulations are being tightened about methane leaks at the wellheads.
    What America now has yet to learn is how efficiently this natural gas can be consumed. The residential industry already knows. They have the condensing boilers and water heaters operating at 90% to 96% energy efficiency.
    Larger commercial and industry also have this Condensing Flue Gas Heat Recovery technology available, but this is a step that has to be taken, even with cheap natural gas.

    Natural gas can be consumed so efficiently that COOL exhaust gets vented into the atmosphere, and the WATER is also being recovered from these combusted exhaust gases, and this clean-distilled water is very usable.

    The US EIA states that in 2011 the USA consumed approximately 17.5 Trillion cu.ft of natural gas in commercial buildings, industry and power plants.
    40%(?) of that energy was wasted, blown into the atmosphere as HOT exhaust. Global Warming?

    Why is this still being allowed?

    The US DOE states that for every 1 million Btu’s of energy recovered from these waste exhaust gases, and this recovered energy is utilized back in the building or facility, 118 lbs of CO2 will NOT be put into the atmosphere.
    They also state that if a 60 watt light bulb is left on for 24 hours it will create 3.3 lbs of CO2.
    How many light bulbs have to be turned off or changed HOURLY to keep up with the CO2 reduction happening hourly in the boiler room?

    What natural gas is not wasted today, will be there to be used another day.

    Link to this
  6. 6. electric38 12:04 am 11/16/2012

    It would be nice if the article explained how citizens could become “self sufficient” by owning their own solar PV rooftop. No more gasoline (electric car batteries charged via natural sunlight). No more utility bills (for life). Cleaner air and better health, for our children and grandchildren. Less global warming and related catasrophes. More spendable income (so we can afford Scientific American-like publications). No more trillion dollar a year wars (and related deaths and injuries) for oil price protection and mid-east terrorist funding, and so on and so forth….

    Link to this

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