—America will halve its reliance on Middle East oil by the end of this decade and could end it completely by 2035 due to declining demand and the rapid growth of new petroleum sources in the Western Hemisphere, energy analysts now anticipate.
The shift, a result of technological advances that are unlocking new sources of oil in shale-rock formations, oil sands and deep beneath the ocean floor, carries profound consequences for the U.S. economy and energy security. A good portion of this surprising bounty comes from the widespread use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a technique perfected during the last decade in U.S. fields previously deemed not worth tampering with.
China gets about half its oil from countries around the Persian Gulf. Add to that China's strong belief in naval strength, and toss in U.S. eagerness to wind down military involvement in the Middle East, and you get all the ingredients for a historic reshuffling of the security picture in the region. The question for Washington is deceptively simple: Would that be good or bad?
By 2020, nearly half of the crude oil America consumes will be produced at home, while 82% will come from this side of the Atlantic, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. By 2035, oil shipments from the Middle East to North America "could almost be nonexistent," the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries recently predicted, partly because more efficient car engines and a growing supply of renewable fuel will help curb demand.
The change achieves a long-sought goal of U.S. policy-making: to draw more oil from nearby, stable sources and less from a volatile region half a world away. "Whereas at one point there were real and serious concerns about the ability to maintain sustainable access of supplies to the United States if there were disruptions in the Middle East, that has changed," Carlos Pascual, the top energy official at the State Department, said in an interview.
Even as Beijing fears a growing reliance on Middle East crude, the rate of its economic growth leaves policy makers few options. As a result, China is settling in for along-term economic and political presence in a regionthat for decades has overshadowed U.S. foreign policy.
U.S. officials stress that the Middle East will remain important to American foreign policy partly because of the region's continuing influence on global oil prices. "We need to continue to pay attention to how global markets function, because we have a fundamental interest that those markets are stable," Mr. Pascual said.
That means the U.S. military will keep guarding the region's oil shipping lanes, as it has done for decades. "Nobody else can protect it and if it were no longer available, U.S. oil prices would go up," said Michael O'Hanlon, a national security expert with the Brookings Institution, who says the U.S. spends $50 billion a year protecting oil shipments. But China, a growing consumer of Middle Eastern crude, is seeking a larger presence in the region, with its navy joining antipiracy efforts near Somalia.
Still, growing domestic energy production could allow the U.S. to lessen its focus on the unpredictable region over time. Dependence on Middle East oil has shaped American foreign, national-security and defense policies for most of the last half century. It helped drive the U.S. into active participation in the search for Arab-Israeli peace; drove Washington into close alignments with the monarchies of the Persian Gulf states; compelled it to side with Iraq during its war with Iran; prompted it to then turn against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait, bringing about the first Persian Gulf war; and prompted Washington to then build up and sustain its military presence in the region.
Whatever the success such strategies had in ensuring American influence in the region, all also came at a price. Involvement in the Arab-Israeli peace process brought the U.S. the enmity of many of the region's most radical forces upset at the failure to create a Palestinian state. The decision to build up an American military presence in the region was used as a rationale for anti-American agitation and attacks by al Qaeda and other extremist forces.
The shift away from Middle Eastern oil means closer ties with Canada, which is emerging as the top U.S. energy ally, but also with Latin neighbors that are strong trading partners. A dollar spent buying oil from these countries is more likely to end up back in the U.S. than a dollar spent buying Iraqi or Saudi crude. Economies buoyed by petrodollars also lessen the appeal of northward migration for Latin America's poor, says Jeremy Martin, director of the energy program at the Institute of the Americas in La Jolla, Calif.
Milestones for American Oil
The American energy revolution also is making a splash across the Atlantic. Countries in Eastern Europe, long dependent on Russia for their energy, are seeking to tap their own shale resources with the help of U.S. companies. Even Russia, which needs new sources of oil to maintain its status as an energy superpower, is getting into fracking with the biggest U.S. oil company, Exxon Mobil Corp. This month Exxon and Russia's state-controlled OAO Rosneft broadened an existing alliance to include the joint development of tight oil reserves in western Siberia.
The prospect that new sources of supply in the Americas could lead to years of flat or even falling oil prices is a source of great concern in the Kremlin. Surging oil revenues over his 12 years in power have helped President Vladimir Putin pay for an eightfold increase in government spending, going to everything from pension and wage hikes to costly projects like the Sochi Olympics to a major military buildup. Now, his government is scrambling to find ways to tighten its belt as oil prices—and thus tax revenues—slide. Finding a new driver for Russia's economy is "a colossal challenge," said economy minister Andrei Belousov.