Can North America really become energy independent?
Based on the media consensus, energy self sufficiency is right around the corner. A report by Citigroup Inc (NYSE:C) predicts North America could wean itself off imports by 2020. Continental Resources, Inc. (NYSE:CLR) CEO Harold Hamm thinks it’s possible with less government interference. But is this goal really achievable? Let’s investigate.
The road to independence
We’re in the midst of a North American energy renaissance. Sustained high oil prices have made it economical to exploit harder to reach deposits offshore in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Alberta oil sands. New technologies have unlocked the bounty of shale formations like the Bakken, Eagle Ford, and the Permian Basin. With the advent of horizontal drilling and fracking, companies were finally able to access the oil trapped in those thin layers of tightly-packed rocks.
This combined factors have caused a boom in oil and natural gas output. According to the EIA, North America’s total energy production has increased 8% over the past six years. Analysts project that figure to grow another 17% by 2030.
The path to indepence is also being reinforced by a steady decline in U.S. energy consumption. According to the CIA World Factbook, U.S. oil demand peaked in 2004 at 20.7 million b/d. Since then consumption has fallen 10%.
All of these trends are accelerating North America’s path to energy self-sufficiency. Based on EIA estimates, the continent imported only 11% of it fuel needs in 2011, down from 19% in 2005. If these trends continue North America could be independent by 2020. Some analysts are making even bolder forecasts predicting that the United States is on track to become the world’s largest energy producer by the end of the decade and will be completely self-sufficient by 2030.
But there’re three big problems with this theory
First, the Alberta oil sands play a key role in North America achieving energy independence. But while Canadian production is expected to grow substantially over the next three decades, the oil sands are some of the most controversial resources on the planet.
Enbridge Inc (USA) (NYSE:ENB), the Canadian pipeline company that is responsible for transporting 70% of Canada’s oil exports to the U.S., is under intense regulatory review and public scrutiny after a series of spills. Enbridge Inc (USA) (NYSE:ENB) is also facing strong resistance to its west coast bound Northern Gateway pipeline. In June, the British Columbia provincial government rejected the company’s proposal after intense pressure from environmental groups. Many think the pipeline will never get built.