U.S. energy production already affecting OPEC

Iraq's Minister of Oil and President of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) conference, Abdul-Kareem Luaibi Bahedh (2R), looks on while OPEC Secretary General Abdalla Salem El-Badri (R) speaks during a press conference at the end of the 161st meeting of the OPEC in Vienna, on June 14, 2012.

If you think of the world oil market as a big stack to be filled, North America is suddenly pouring in big amounts. It's because of new drilling technologies, like hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

In just two years, North America has disrupted other world suppliers, says Jamie Webster at PFC Energy. He's in Vienna for the OPEC meeting.

"Because the United States and Canada has kind of filled up that stack," Webster says, "it has reduced the amount that OPEC needs to bring on. So that is why the boom in the United States is in fact already affecting OPEC."

The dynamic suggests less revenue for OPEC producers like Saudi Arabia. And yet, Saudi always matters. It's the world's key swing producer, to tighten or loosen supplies when needed, kind of what the Federal Reserve does with money.

"Saudi Arabia will still be, if I may say so, the central banker for the oil industry for many years to come," says former OPEC economist Fatih Birol, now with the International Energy Agency.

Birol thinks Middle East oil shipments to America will dwindle to zero within a few years. Which has raised a debate: how much should Washington care about the Mideast? Would the U.S. military still come to the defense of Kuwait, as it did in 1990?

Some in the not-so-much camp argue for a downsized Pentagon budget to reflect that. Others argue the U.S. remains the world's lone energy policeman, and will keep it that way.

"We are the only country in the world currently, like it or not, that can project power in the Middle East," says Ed Chow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There is no substitute for the Middle East for oil. And there is no substitute for American military power to secure that supply of oil for the world economy.

If the U.S. is a winner in the new energy order, Russia may be a loser. Its natural gas stranglehold on the European market is threatened by new shale gas supplies popping up elsewhere.

And China? Its energy thirst makes it increasingly reliant on Mideast oil, and nervous about it.

"This is why China is building a navy that can roam further than its territory," says international oil analyst Robert McNally of the Rapidan Group. "They've been building alliances with countries along the way to the Middle East. And down the road will likely look to protect its supply lines, probably in the same way we have."

Still, the U.S. production stirring up all this talk has uncertainties: how safe is it to drill shale oil and gas? How will it be regulated, and exported? How quickly do wells decline?

Regardless, OPEC thinks the world's energy music is already changing, and is trying to dance along.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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