The United States' rapidly declining crude oil supply has made a stunning about-face, shredding federal oil projections and putting energy independence in sight of some analyst forecasts.
After declining to levels not seen since the 1940s, U.S. crude production began rising again in 2009. Drilling rigs have rushed into the nation's oil fields, suggesting a surge in domestic crude is on the horizon.
The number of rigs in U.S. oil fields has more than quadrupled in the past three years to 1,272, according to the Baker Hughes rig count. Including those in natural gas fields, the United States now has more rigs at work than the entire rest of the world.
"It's staggering," said Marshall Adkins, who directs energy research for the financial services firm Raymond James. "If we continue growing anywhere near that pace and keep squeezing demand out of the system, that puts you in a world where we are not importing oil in 10 years."
There are doubts that energy independence is that close. But many say the booming shale oil fields in Texas and North Dakota and the growth of deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico will allow the nation to cut its reliance on oil imports significantly over the next couple of decades.
Last month, the U.S. Energy Information Administration upgraded its forecast of crude production in 2025 to 6.4 million barrels per day - 1 million barrels more than were pumped in 2010.
Previously, the EIA had projected the U.S. would peak at 6 million barrels in 2022.
"The growth that we've seen in shale, that's one of the biggest changes that's contributing to our outlook," said Dana Van-Wagener, a research analyst for the agency. "It's evolving so quickly. We weren't anticipating enough growth."
Crude prices stable
By the EIA's forecast, the United States will challenge Saudi Arabia as the world's top oil producer when crude and other forms of liquid petroleum are included. But the U.S. is also the world's top oil consumer, demanding nearly 20 million barrels a day. So even with an oil boom, the nation still falls far short of its energy demands.
The technology that fueled the national shale gas rush is moving into oil fields. The pairing of fossil fuel production techniques called horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing allowed companies to access previously hard-to-reach natural gas trapped in dense shale rock.
The rush has unleashed a flood of natural gas onto the U.S. market, causing prices to dive and making some gas wells uneconomical. Companies have started to close natural gas wells and pull rigs out of gas fields.
Meanwhile, crude oil prices have remained high, with the domestic benchmark West Texas Intermediate price rising 93 cents to $103.24 on Friday.
Pumping crude out of shale rock is more expensive and difficult than getting at natural gas, said Eric Potter, program director for energy research at the University of Texas at Austin's Bureau of Economic Geology.
Oil molecules are larger and harder to squeeze through the cracks created by hydraulic fracturing. But the high price of crude makes it worthwhile for many companies.
"With natural gas prices being as low as they are, your company could go out of business if you don't manage this carefully," Potter said. "People are moving quickly to get into these oil plays. It's a matter of their existence."
The Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, the Permian Basin in West Texas, and the Bakken Shale in North Dakota have been hubs of the domestic crude boom. They now make up about 40 percent of the nation's land-based oil production, noted Adkins, the Raymond James analyst. He projects that proportion will grow to two-thirds by 2015.
Adkins says the Energy Information Administration is vastly underestimating the rapid growth of those oil fields. He believes that crude oil production in the United States will reach 9.1 million barrels by 2015, some 45 percent more than the EIA's forecast.
The reason for the varying projections about the nation's crude potential is uncertainty about how much oil is underground and whether technological advances will make it reachable.
That also causes debate about future crude oil prices.
Adkins, for example, says the rising production will help reverse the surging price of oil, pushing it down to $90 per barrel next year.
Others, however, believe oil prices will continue to rise despite the growing supply coming out of U.S. oil fields. Domestic crude prices are closely tied to the world market.
That makes domestic prices susceptible to the global Brent crude benchmark price, which is on the rise due to foreign conflicts and rapidly growing energy demands in developing countries.
The EIA projects the average world oil price will reach about $145 per barrel in 2035, in current dollars, compared to the 2011 average of $93 per barrel. Meanwhile, the agency forecasts gasoline in America will rise to $4.09 per gallon.
"As far as drilling and production, it's going to be really good and robust," said Michelle Michot Foss, chief energy economist for the University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology. "But consumers will be upset because gasoline prices will continue to be high."
After declining to levels not seen since the 1940s, U.S. oil production began rising again in 2009.
More rigs: The number of rigs in U.S. oil fields has more than quadrupled in the past three years to 1,272.
Bright forecast: The U.S. Energy Information Administration hiked its forecast of crude production in 2025 to 6.4 million barrels per day. That's 1 million barrels more than the U.S. produced in 2010.
Challenging the Saudis: By the EIA's forecast, the U.S. will challenge Saudi Arabia as the world's top oil producer, including crude and other forms of oil.
Copyright 2012 The Houston Chronicle Publishing Company. All Rights Reserved.
(Originally published February 19, 2012, in The Houston Chronicle.)