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Energy independence: Manifest destiny or mythology?

Eric Christopher Adams
New construction in Williston, ND
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Gas flare at sunrise near Williston, North Dakota.
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Ray, North Dakota.
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Traffic on Route 85 and the Missouri River.
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Barbed wire fence in a North Dakota wheat field.
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A truck hauls drill pipe through wheat fields from a drilling site near Williston, North Dakota.
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Drill rigs and gas flares near U.S. Route 2 in North Dakota.
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An empty gravel truck drives on a rural road in North Dakota near Williston.
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A drill rig works in a field of wheat near Williston, North Dakota.
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Treeline at sunset in Ray, North Dakota.
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A drill rig near Williston, ND.
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Much has been made of the shale oil boom across North America and how the newly-accessible hydrocarbons could position the U.S. to overtake Saudi Arabia in oil production before the end of the decade.

The International Energy Agency this week revised its oil-production forecast. Last year, the Paris-based agency announced that Russia and Saudi Arabia would jockey for the lead spot in terms of production through the year 2020. No more. Led by shale-oil plays in the Bakken formation across Montana and the Dakotas, the Marcellus in the Northeast and the Eagle Ford in south Texas -- with Alaska's middle-aged elephant fields across the North Slope shoring up production -- the U.S. of A. is poised to become the world's leading producer of oil within about seven years, the IEA has concluded:

The (World Energy Outlook) finds that the extraordinary growth in oil and natural gas output in the United States will mean a sea-change in global energy flows. ... The United States becomes a net exporter of natural gas by 2020 and is almost self-sufficient in energy, in net terms, by 2035. North America emerges as a net oil exporter, accelerating the switch in direction of international oil trade, with almost 90% of Middle Eastern oil exports being drawn to Asia by 2035. Links between regional gas markets will strengthen as liquefied natural gas trade becomes more flexible and contract terms evolve. While regional dynamics change, global energy demand will push ever higher, growing by more than one-third to 2035. China, India and the Middle East account for 60% of the growth; demand barely rises in the OECD, but there is a pronounced shift towards gas and renewables.

The Wall Street Journal quickly and correctly acknowledged the implications for the U.S. both in terms of domestic economics and geopolitical strategy. The Journal's lede:

A shale-oil boom will help the U.S. overtake Saudi Arabia as the world's largest oil producer by 2020, according to the International Energy Agency, a shift that could transform not just energy supplies but also U.S. politics and diplomacy.

The Paris-based agency, which advises industrialized nations on their energy policies, said the global energy map "is being redrawn by the resurgence in oil and gas production in the United States."

The assessment—a stark contrast from last year, when Russia and Saudi Arabia were seen vying for the top position—comes a week after the end of a presidential campaign.

But what does that mean? Will America finally be weaned off its dependence on oil imports from unstable Middle East regimes? Is energy independence something that's actually achievable?

Don't hold your breath. At least that's the premise for a thoughtful article from The Atlantic, which explores the IEA forecast and what it means for the U.S. One takeaway from The Atlantic piece is that the U.S. can never achieve oil-market hegemony because, ironically, of our belief that the markets will level the playing field. They won't, The Atlantic posits.

For one, the U.S. is unlikely to nationalize its oil reserves the way that other crude kingdoms like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Russia have done in different ways, but ways that all achieve a similar result that bequeaths market control to the central government. Wildcatters in South Texas or North Dakota likely won't have to worry about Congress or any president usurping their property rights. Alaska's a different story for another analysis.

And Saudi Arabia chooses not to produce more oil. It could if it wanted to but the kingdom exercises more power -- and with power, political stability -- by stabilizing the world's oil markets, pumping more when the global economy heats up and cutting back when it cools off. The U.S. can't and won't ever do any such thing.

But here's the crutch: with more oil production comes more oil consumption. And because the U.S. economy is fueled by consumption, not production, it's hard to imagine that without a sustained emphasis at the state and federal levels on a diversified portfolio of energy sources -- from renewables like wind, geothermal and solar to hydrocarbons like oil and coal -- the U.S. can ever achieve anything that remotely resembles the political catch phrase, "energy independence."

Says The Atlantic:

If we want to stop buying oil from places other than Canada and Mexico, we need to cut our usage. Same deal if we don't want to see prices spike as 1.3 billion Chinese inch closer to our standard of living. The scary thing is that more oil we produce, and the more our economy comes to rely on hydrocarbons, the harder it will be politically to promote sane green energy policies that move toward that goal. There's nothing like short-term profits to make you forget your long term interests. 

The World Energy Outlook executive summary also contextualizes the shale oil boom's curse: A glut of new oil could end up delaying inevitable investments in renewables and energy-efficient technologies -- the very things, according to the report, that could deliver energy security (although the phrase "energy independence" is noticeably omitted):

Tackling the barriers to energy efficiency investment can unleash this potential and realise huge gains for energy security, economic growth and the environment. These gains are not based on achieving any major or unexpected technological breakthroughs, but just on taking actions to remove the barriers obstructing the implementation of energy efficiency measures that are economically viable. Successful action to this effect would have a major impact on global energy and climate trends ... The growth in global primary energy demand to 2035 would be halved. Oil demand would peak just before 2020 and would be almost 13 (million barrels per day) lower by 2035.

Thoughts? Share them in our comments section.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article mistakenly identified the International Energy Agency by the acronym IAEA. The correct acronym is IEA.

Contact Eric Christopher Adams at eric(at)alaskadispatch.com