WASHINGTON — Preoccupied by the election, Americans may be under the delusion that most major social and economic changes proceed from the ballot box. Not so.
The latest reminder of this comes from a surprising source: the annual World Energy Outlook report from the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA). In the report, the IEA comes to the startling conclusion that, by 2020, the United States will displace Saudi Arabia — albeit temporarily — as the world’s largest oil producer. Even more astonishing, the United States is projected by 2035 to be virtually self-sufficient in oil, with modest imports coming from secure suppliers.
Richard Nixon must be cheering from his grave. In 1973, Nixon launched Project Independence; the United States would be energy self-sufficient by 1980. It didn’t happen, and although many politicians later embraced the same popular goal, most energy experts considered it a self-serving fantasy. Oil demand crept steadily upward, while America seemed to be slowly exhausting its once large reserves. "Output had been widely assumed, even as recently as a few years ago, to be in inevitable decline," notes the IEA.
No more. Geology and technology, it seems, are destiny.
The same technology that has resulted in a vast expansion of natural gas production — so-called "shale gas" — is doing the same for oil. "Fracking" (shooting highly pressurized water into oil formations) and horizontal drilling are steadily increasing production. Meanwhile, the IEA expects that much-improved vehicle fuel efficiency will slowly reduce U.S. oil demand. The Obama administration has adopted rules raising fuel efficiency for new cars to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 — roughly double the present standard.