The International Energy Agency has released a report in which it's predicting that the U.S. will become the world's largest producer of oil by 2020 — surpassing even Saudi Arabia. The IEA report also predicts that the U.S. will be a net exporter of oil by 2030 and nearly self-sufficient in energy by 2035. This dramatic and unexpected change in fortune can be primarily attributed to the relatively new practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — an industrial process that's not without its critics.
According to the report, by 2015, U.S. oil production is expected to rise to 10 million barrels per day and increase to 11.1 million barrels per day by 2020. And as the LA Times notes, this will put the U.S. in some serious company as it overtakes second-place Russia and front-runner Saudi Arabia:
"Just a few years ago, people were still talking about peak oil. Now we're talking about the U.S. becoming the new Saudi Arabia," said Phil Flynn, an analyst with the Price Futures Group. "They said we couldn't drill our way out of this mess, but we are drilling our way out of this mess."
Around 2030, however, Saudi Arabia is expected to be producing some 11.4 million barrels of oil per day, outpacing the 10.2 million from the U.S., the IEA report said. In 2035, U.S. production will slip to 9.2 million barrels per day, far behind the Middle Eastern nation's 12.3 million daily barrels. And by 2035 Iraq will have exceeded Russia to become the world's second-largest oil exporter.
At that point, inflation-adjusted oil prices will reach $125 a barrel. By then, however, the U.S. won't be relying much on foreign energy, according to the IEA report.
Indeed, if all goes as planned, the U.S. will be completely energy self-sufficient by that point.
As noted, however, the burgeoning oil boom will likely come at a price. It's thought, for example, that the new influx of oil will de-motivate efforts to develop sustainable forms of energy.
There's also the toll on the environment to consider. The report warned that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will continue to escalate — what could result in a long-term average temperature increase of about 6.5 degrees. At the same time, energy production will continue to drain the world's water — what already accounts for 15% of total water consumption.
And then there's hydraulic fracturing.
Critics warn that the industrial practice — in which long, horizontal channels are drilled deep underground to draw oil trapped in rocks by applying high pressure — could result in contaminated water supplies, risks to air quality, the release of gases and hydraulic fracturing chemicals to the surface, and surface contamination from spills and throwback. There are even concerns that fracking may cause earthquakes.
At any rate, it would appear that the U.S. is set to achieve energy independence in just over two decades — what will certainly alleviate pressure on the country to rely on outside sources (including the Middle East and Canada). As to what impact this will have on the environment and the development of alternative energy sources remains an open question.