U.S. energy independence has been a dream since the oil embargoes of the 1970s. But this vision of a "Saudi America" has always been just a dream.
Investors and non-investors alike started talking in earnest about realizing that dream last November. That was after the International Energy Agency's (IEA) latest World Energy Outlook said that the U.S. would overtake both Saudi Arabia and Russia in oil output by the second half of this decade.
Its forecast calls for the United States to be producing 11.1 million barrels a day in 2020 compared to Saudi Arabia's 10.6 million barrels a day.
The IEA's Outlook went on to say that by 2035 the United States could be almost self-sufficient in energy, and talks about "Saudi America" began to surface.
That talk picked up energy recently after the release of the annual energy outlook from BP PLC (NYSE ADR: BP). BP stated the U.S. would be 99% energy self-sufficient by 2030 and that it would be the top global oil producer this year.
Here's why the IEA and BP are so optimistic.
The Oil Boom in America
Oil production in the United States has increase for four straight years, and last year's 760,000 barrel a day increase in production was the biggest annual increase since oil began to be pumped commercially in the country in 1859.
One of the biggest reasons is the use of technologies like hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," which has unlocked hard-to-extract "tight oil" reserves.
The boom was led by the Bakken Shale area of North Dakota. Production there has increased from just 100,000 barrels a day five years ago to the more than 1 million barrels a day currently.
As a result, oil imports into the country last year were at a 25-year low - something unexpected.
Jim Burkhard, head of oil markets research at energy consultancy IHS Cera, said "Five years ago, if I or anyone had predicted today's production growth, people would have thought we were crazy."
And it is good news for the U.S. economy. IHS says the boom already supports 1.7 million jobs and is expected to create at least 1.3 million more jobs by the end of the decade.
Energy economist Philip Verleger said "It's the most important change to the economy since the advent of personal computers pushed up productivity in the 1990s."
Which Energy Companies Will Benefit?
That's the macro picture. But what about the micro - what companies are beneficiaries are of the tight oil boom?
Production from tight oil formations is expected to grow to at least 4.2 million barrels a day by 2020, according to energy consultant Wood Mackenzie.
The companies involved in this boom include the oil majors like Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM), Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX) and Royal Dutch Shell Plc (NYSE ADR: RDS.A). But these companies are late-comers to the party.
The tight oil boom has been led by a number of small and mid-sized oil companies. These include the leading firms in the Bakken: Continental Resources (NYSE: CLR), Whiting Petroleum (NYSE: WLL) and Hess Corp. (NYSE: HES) among others.
These companies should continue to benefit as their production levels increase.
Tight Oil and Oil Prices
The only thing that could derail the "Saudi America" future is much lower oil prices. Getting oil from shale rock is a much more expensive proposition than getting oil from conventional fields in Saudi Arabia. Estimates for the cost of tight oil production range from $45-$65 a barrel.
However, thanks to their own domestic concerns, OPEC producers are very unlikely to let the global oil price fall below $80 a barrel. The IEA forecast is for oil to average $89 a barrel over the next five years.
And as Money Morning Global Energy Strategist Dr. Kent Moors explained in this recent report, there are a number of factors that will prevent increased domestic oil production from reducing oil prices - check out that analysis here.
Looks like we still have time to wait, but the United States is slowly heading for "Saudi America."
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