Hector Gallegos sits in the cab of his pick-up enjoying a few hours of calm. A day earlier, workers finished carting off the huge rig that had drilled three new wells beneath this small patch of south Texas farmland and he’s now getting ready to prime them for production. He reckons that about three weeks from now each will be producing 1,000 to 2,000 barrels a day. “That’s money!” he exclaims with a broad smile.
It’s also power, and not in the combustion sense. Thanks to the success of engineers like Mr Gallegos in pushing the frontiers of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, to access reserves of oil trapped in shale formations, notably here in Texas and North Dakota, America is poised to displace Saudi Arabia as the world’s top producer. With that could come a hobbling of Opec and unforeseen shifts in US foreign policy.
So rapid has been the change in its energy fortunes that even some experts, as well as policy-makers in Washington, are struggling to keep up. Nor are we just talking oil. So much natural gas is being released by the shale also that for now outlandish quantities of it are simply being burned off into the atmosphere.
Even predicting future oil output isn’t the precise science you’d expect. “We keep raising our forecasts, and we keep underestimating production,” Lejla Alic, an analyst with the International Energy Agency noted recently. Last year US production reached 7.4 million barrels a day, an increase over 2012 of 15.3 per cent. A jump that large hasn’t been seen since 1951. This year the US should produce 8.3 million barrels a day.
Take another indicator – the volumes of crude being moved by trains, often a mile long, from the shale fields to refineries and terminals. In all of 2008, train companies moved 9,500 wagons of the black stuff. Last year, 400,000 of them rumbled across America.
How long America’s shale boom will last is hard to forecast also. In Texas, which on its own is set to increase production to 4 million barrels a day this year, the drilling peak still hasn’t been reached, says Mr Gallegos. But, he suggests, “in the end it’s not the oil fields or the wells that will determine where all this goes. It’s the politicians around the world who set the price and make the markets.” Increasingly, the decisions that matter will rest with the US, as it adjusts to its new status as a glut producer.
“The United States is now poised to become an energy superpower,” write By Robert D. Blackwill and Meghan O’Sullivan, in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.
The consequences are likely to be far-reaching, notably affording Washington a chance it hasn’t had since the energy crisis of the early 1970s to reassess its relationships with those countries, often ruled by unappetising despotic governments – Saudi Arabia included – on which America has had to depend for so long to feed its fossil fuel needs.
“Since 1971, when US oil production peaked, energy has been construed as a strategic liability for the country, with its ever-growing thirst for reasonably priced fossil fuels sometimes necessitating incongruous alliances and complex obligations abroad,” they write. “That logic has been upended, and the newly unlocked energy is set to boost the US economy and grant Washington newfound leverage around the world.”
Among the determinations Washington must make is whether to overturn a federal law, also dating back to the early ‘70s, that forbids US companies from exporting crude in all but a few circumstances. Full energy independence may still be many years away, but proponents of ending the ban argue it would not only further boost the US economy – fracking added 0.3 per cent to GDP growth last year – but also help America mitigate or even end Opec’s market influence and lessen Russia’s leverage also.
The Russia equation has, thanks to the Crimea crisis, raced to the fore, though it is more about gas from fracking than oil. America will see captured output touch 70 billion cubic feet a day in 2014, reaching over 100 billion cubic feet per day by 2040. In the past days, Bills have been tabled in both houses of Congress demanding that the federal government speed up the granting of licences to companies to export natural gas across the Atlantic precisely to reduce the dependency of Western Europe and Ukraine on Russian supplies.
Among those wading in is House Speaker John Boehner. “The US Department of Energy’s excruciatingly slow approval process amounts to a de facto ban on American natural gas exports that Vladimir Putin has happily exploited to finance his geopolitical goals,” he said in a statement last week.
Building the infrastructure to export quantities needed to alter the energy politics of Europe will take several years. Nor will changes in America’s foreign policy stance because of its newfound oil fortunes become obvious overnight.
Indeed, some experts warn against over-stating the likely effects. “The US has a lot of interest in what’s going on around the world, in the Middle East and elsewhere, regardless of whether it is independent or self-sufficient in fuels,” Adam Sieminski, the administrator of the Energy Information Administration in Washington told the Financial Post. “Those political and economic interests will remain whether we become an exporter or not.”
As vivid as the gas flares in the Texas sky at night, however, is America’s new-found love affair with fracking. Environmentalists warn loudly of water contamination disasters and some home owners speak of being rattled by man-made earthquakes, but there is no giving it up now. It’s a whole different world to 2008, when US oil production was at a historical low and Sarah Palin was drawing liberal ire declaring that “Drill, Baby Drill!” was the answer to all of America’s problems. Suddenly she seems to have been right.