Energy Wars of Attrition: The Irony of Oil Abundance

When oil prices began plummeting in 2015, the Saudis launched an "oil war of attrition," imagining that others would be devastated by it while they emerged triumphant.When oil prices began plummeting in 2015, the Saudis launched an “oil war of attrition,” imagining that others would be devastated by it while they emerged triumphant. (Photo: Oil pumping via Shutterstock)

Three and a half years ago, the International Energy Agency (IEA) triggered headlines around the world by predicting that the United States would overtake Saudi Arabia to become the world’s leading oil producer by 2020 and, together with Canada, would become a net exporter of oil around 2030. Overnight, a new strain of American energy triumphalism appeared and experts began speaking of “Saudi America,” a reinvigorated U.S.A. animated by copious streams of oil and natural gas, much of it obtained through the then-pioneering technique of hydro-fracking. “This is a real energy revolution,” the Wall Street Journal crowed in an editorial heralding the IEA pronouncement.

The most immediate effect of this “revolution,” its boosters proclaimed, would be to banish any likelihood of a “peak” in world oil production and subsequent petroleum scarcity.  The peak oil theorists, who flourished in the early years of the twenty-first century, warned that global output was likely to reach its maximum attainable level in the near future, possibly as early as 2012, and then commence an irreversible decline as the major reserves of energy were tapped dry. The proponents of this outlook did not, however, foresee the coming of hydro-fracking and the exploitation of previously inaccessible reserves of oil and natural gas in underground shale formations.

Understandably enough, the stunning increase in North American oil production in the past few years simply wasn’t on their radar. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the Department of Energy, U.S. crude output rose from 5.5 million barrels per day in 2010 to 9.2 million barrels as 2016 began, an increase of 3.7 million barrels per day in what can only be considered the relative blink of an eye. Similarly unexpected was…

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