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 US 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 US fields previously deemed not worth tampering with.
By 2020, nearly half of the crude oil America consumes will be produced at home, while 82 percent will come from this side of the Atlantic, according to the US 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 US policymaking -- 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.
US 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," Pascual said.
That means the US 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, US oil prices would go up," said Michael O'Hanlon, a national security expert with the Brookings Institution, who says the US 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 anti-piracy efforts near Somalia.