Source: Rich Miller, Asjylyn Loder and Jim Polson, Bloomberg News, Seattle Times, February 8, 2012.
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 United States 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, 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 United States has reversed a two-decade-long decline in energy independence, increasing the proportion of demand met from domestic sources over the past 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 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 United States 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 United States’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 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.