The Economist reported on February 15 that U.S. oil production reached a peak of 9.6 million barrels per day (bpd) in 1970, then declined to less than five million bpd in 2008. About that time, independent oil producers began adapting the new technologies of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and horizontal drilling (which had previously been used to tap natural gas found in shale) to reach shale oil.
Since fracking was introduced, U.S. oil production has risen to 7.4 million bpd and the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that U.S. production will return to 1970 levels by 2019.
The International Energy Agency has issued projections that the United States will displace Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer by 2015. By 2020, notes a report in Investing Daily, the United States will produce 11.6 million barrels a day. During the same period, Saudi Arabia’s output is expected to fall from 11.7 million bpd to 10.6 million bpd.
In “America’s Energy Edge,” an essay in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs (the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations), Robert D. Blackwiil and Meghan L. O’Sullivan, noted that during the past five years U.S. energy producers have taken advantage of two new technologies: “horizontal drilling, which allows wells to penetrate bands of shale deep underground, and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which uses the injection of high-pressure fluid to release gas and oil from rock formations.”
Blackwill and O’Sullivan continue:
The resulting uptick in energy production has been dramatic. Between 2007 and 2012, U.S. shale gas production rose by over 50 percent each year, and its share of total U.S. gas production jumped from five percent to 39 percent.... Between 2007 and 2012, fracking also generated an 18-fold increase in U.S. production of what is known as light tight oil, high-quality petroleum found in shale or sandstone that can be released by fracking. This boom has succeeded in reversing the long decline in U.S. crude oil production, which grew by 50 percent between 2008 and 2013. Thanks to these developments, the United States is now poised to become an energy superpower.
At the heart of this story is a technique that has been used so successfully to increase U.S. oil production: fracking, the popular term for what scientists call hydraulic fracturing. Basically, hydraulic fracturing is the fracturing of rock — in this case shale containing oil — by a pressurized liquid. Water mixed with sand and chemicals is injected at high pressure into a borehole, producing small fractures in the shale, allowing natural gas or oil to seep into the well, from which it is extracted.
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Photo of fracking equipment in the Bakken oil field