U.S. to pass Saudi Arabia as top oil producer

An oil pump jack near Tioga, N.D. A boom fueled by hydraulic fracturing of shale should add millions of jobs in the U.S. The question: How long will it last?

A new projection suggests the United States will leapfrog the Saudis in oil come 2020 or so. This comes not from an oil company or a bank, but the blue-ribbon International Energy Agency in Vienna. It advises governments around the world.

The IEA cites as a main reason the new drilling technology known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. That same controversial innovation is driving the domestic natural gas boom.

Optimistic economists think the boom could create three to four million new jobs, and push down the U.S. jobless rate by a full percentage point. They also forecast ultra-low energy bills for households and energy-intensive manufacturing sectors.

"The order of magnitude is the same as the technology boom in the '90s," says independent energy economist Philip Verleger. "We are going to see an economic surge very similar to that."

Already, new jobs have come to the U.S. in drilling, and supplying the drillers with pipes and trucks and hotel rooms.

Also: petrochemical plants. They use a natural gas product as a cheap raw material.

"The U.S. is the cheapest, large-scale petrochemical producing country in the world," says Ed Morse of Citigroup. "Massive new petrochemical facilities are being built, not only in Louisiana and Texas, but also in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio and West Virginia."

But this being economics, there are competing assumptions and prophecies. Some think the U.S. oil and gas boom is just a one-decade, one-off bonanza.

 

INTERACTIVE: See the top global oil producers rise and fall from 1960 to 2010 in this interactive map. View the map


"In the IEA's estimation, the most commercially attractive fields are the ones that are getting developed right now," says Trevor Houser of the Rhodium Group consultancy. "And tight oil or shale gas fields produce pretty rapidly early on, but then decline fairly sharply.

The decline rate of these new oil and gas wells is a big debate. As is whether fracking is ushering in an energy game-changer, equivalent to the Internet. At the very least, energy pros see a solid 10- to 15-year economic boost.

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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