Is America on the verge of becoming the world's biggest oil producer?

A fracking revolution may pave the way for U.S. energy independence

Employees of Cabot Oil and Gas work on a natural gas valve at a hydraulic fracturing site in South Montrose, Pa.
(Image credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

This week, the Paris-based International Energy Agency reported that the U.S. would surpass Saudi Arabia as the world's biggest oil producer by 2020, thanks to a fracking revolution that has opened up oil and natural gas reservoirs long trapped in layers of shale rock. The IEA says the U.S. is on track to produce 11.1 million barrels of oil per day by 2020. That's 500,000 more than Saudi Arabia, currently the world's largest oil producer.

The IEA said the development is evidence that the global energy map "is being redrawn" by the advent of fracking. Short for hydraulic fracturing, fracking involves pumping a mix of chemicals, sand, and water deep underground to break rock open and release the gas inside. Indeed, the IEA projects that the U.S.'s supply of oil, combined with measures to improve energy efficiency, will make the country energy-independent by 2035.

Still, analysts predict that OPEC, the cabal that controls the bulk of global oil production, will likely remain the preeminent force in the oil market for decades to come. In addition, Saudi Arabia is projected to regain its title as the world's largest oil producer by 2030. However, the U.S. will be less reliant on OPEC, with 90 percent of the group's exports going to Asia by 2035. That means Asian countries "should have much greater interest in the stability and security of their suppliers in the Middle East," says IEA official Richard Jones. Indeed, "some in the U.S. are already questioning the reasons for keeping U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf" if all they're being used for is securing safe passage of oil to Asia, say Benoit Faucon and Sarah Kent at The Wall Street Journal.

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However, there is, as usual, concern that unlocking even more oil and natural gas could do great environmental and economic damage to the planet. "Although natural gas is frequently promoted for being relatively low in carbon emissions to oil or coal," says Elisabeth Rosenthal at The New York Times, "the new global energy market could make it even harder to prevent dangerous levels of warming."

Sources: Bloomberg, CNBC.com, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal

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