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Move Over, Saudi Arabia, and Let North Dakota Take Over

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A buyer’s market in oil is in the making and will bring about disruptive market change that should benefit American manufacturers and consumers and prove challenging for Middle Eastern producers and European refiners.

That is the International Energy Agency’s new forecast, released Tuesday in London, and the anticipated supply boom from North American oil fields in particular should contribute to what the IEA terms a “supply shock.”

America’s shale revolution, and abundant capacity in Canada’s tar sands, is well established, but “supply growth is even steeper than previously expected,” said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven at an oil summit in London launching the organization’s Medium-Term Oil Market Report (MTOMR).

Van der Hoeven noted the irony that the country that was the cradle of the oil industry 150 years go, but which eventually fell into what seemed like irreversible decline, has now become the center of an oil boom.

But today’s oil bonanza in the U.S., she said, has powerful compound effects as well.

“What makes the tight oil boom truly transformative is not just the sheer production volumes unlocked but the combination of volumetric production growth with other factors: the crude’s distinctively light quality, the unconventional nature of both the plays from which it is extracted and the technologies which have unlocked it, the economic and market impact of the new production, and the chain reaction it is creating in the global transportation, storage and refining infrastructure,” a summary of the report says.

While U.S. law continues to ban crude oil exports, the growth in oil supply should be a boon to U.S. refiners in the coming years. Long a top importer of refined products, the U.S. is already a large net exporter, and steep production surpluses are expected to push the U.S. share of refined products up even more.

As a news release announcing the report put it, “The supply shock created by a surge in North American oil production will be as transformative to the market over the next five years as was the rise of Chinese demand over the last 15.”

The report’s scenario was not entirely rosy for the U.S., citing three categories of challenge: infrastructural and logistical, legislative and regulatory, and environmental.

Though the U.S. contribution to oil production growth is expected to grow by 3.9 million barrels a day from 2012 to 2018, the market changes do not spell the end of OPEC but do suggest a lowering of its relative stature.

The Saudi Arabia-dominated oil cartel will also see its capacity rise, but by only 1.75 million barrels a day—about 750,000 barrels a day less than last year’s IEA forecast. The new report cites social and political turmoil in the wake of the Arab Spring as a factor in OPEC performance.

Another key IEA finding concerns the shift in demand from Western to emerging economies. While this development has been forecast before, the actual shift is expected to occur over the coming five years.

While emerging economies will blow past the developed world, the IEA sees a split within the developed economies—“a bifurcation has appeared between a North America energized by cheap natural gas and a euro area plagued by debt issues,” van der Hoeven said.

Beyond its slow growth and consequent tepid demand for oil, Europe will lose out in another significant way in the coming five years—specifically, it will cede its primacy as an oil refiner.

“OECD refining, notwithstanding a renaissance in the U.S., is increasingly relinquishing market share to the non-OECD region, a form of de facto offshoring not unlike the trend in other manufacturing sectors,” a summary of the IEA report says.

“Already most of the world’s refining capacity is located in non-OECD economies. In the next five years, virtually all net crude distillation capacity growth is forecast to take place in the emerging-market and developing economies.”


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