May 26, 2012

Booming oil discoveries level West's playing field

Oil and gas fields that were unknown or inaccessible a decade ago – in Argentina, North Dakota, Colombia – now offer the U.S. a glimmer of hope for self-sufficiency.

By JUAN FORERO The Washington Post

LOMA LA LATA, Argentina - In a desertlike stretch of scrub grass and red buttes, oil companies are punching holes in the ground in search of what might be one of the biggest recent discoveries in the Americas: enough gas and oil to make a country known for beef and the tango an important energy player.

Oil Sands Syncrude 20070815
click image to enlarge

A massive crane loads a high-capacity dump truck at one of Syncrude Canada’s Oil Sands mining operations near Fort McMurray, Alberta. Operations like Syncrude’s are transforming the Western Hemisphere’s role in oil production.

The Associated Press

The environment is challenging, with resources trapped deep in shale rock. But technological breakthroughs coupled with a feverish quest for the next major find are unlocking the door to oil and natural gas riches here and in several other countries in the Americas not traditionally known as energy producers.

That is quickly changing the dynamics of energy geopolitics in a way that had been unforeseen just a few years ago.

From Canada to Colombia to Brazil, oil and gas production in the Western Hemisphere is booming, with the United States emerging less dependent on supplies from an unstable Middle East.

Central to the new energy equation is the United States itself, which has ramped up production and is now churning out 1.7 million more barrels of oil and other liquid fuel per day than in 2005.

"There are new players and drivers in the world," said Ruben Etcheverry, chief executive of Gas and Oil of Neuquen, a state-owned energy firm that is positioning itself to develop oil and gas fields here in Patagonia. "There is a new geopolitical shift, and those countries that never provided oil and gas can now do so. For the United States, there is a glimmer of the possibility of self-sufficiency."

Oil produced in Persian Gulf countries -- most notably Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Iraq -- will remain vital to the world's energy picture and to U.S. needs. But what was once a seemingly unalterable truth -- that American oil production would steadily fall while the United States remained heavily reliant on Middle Eastern supplies -- is being turned on its head.

Since 2006, exports to the United States have fallen from all but one major member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, the net decline adding up to nearly 1.8 million barrels per day. Canada, Brazil and Colombia have increased exports to the United States by 700,000 barrels daily in that time span and now provide nearly 3.4 million barrels a day.

Six Persian Gulf suppliers provide just 22 percent of all U.S. imports, the nonpartisan U.S. Energy Information Administration said this month. America's neighbors in the Western Hemisphere, meanwhile, provide more than half -- a figure that has held steady for years because, as production has fallen in the oil powers of Venezuela and Mexico, it has gone up elsewhere.

Production has risen strikingly fast in places as divergent as the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, and the "tight" rock formations of North Dakota and Texas - basins with resources so hard to refine or reach that they were not considered economically viable until recently. Oil is gushing in once-dangerous regions of Colombia and far off the coast of Brazil, under thick salt beds thousands of feet below the surface.

A host of new discoveries or rosy prospects for large deposits also has energy companies drilling in the Chukchi Sea inside the Arctic Circle, deep in the Amazon, along a potentially huge field off South America's northeast shoulder, and in the roiling waters around the Falkland Islands.

"A range of big possibilities for oil are opening up," said Juan Carlos Montiel, as he directed a team from the Argentine-controlled company YPF to drill while a whipping wind brought an autumn chill to the potentially lucrative fields here outside A?. "With the exploration that is being carried out, I think we will really increase the production of gas and oil."

(Continued on page 2)

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