U.S.

US exports more oil than it imports for first time since 1995

Fracking boom drives US exports, despite environmental concerns

A Consol Energy Horizontal Gas Drilling Rig explores the Marcellus Shale outside the town of Waynesburg, Penn. on April 13, 2012.
Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty

The United States exports more oil than it imports for the first time since 1995, in a growing trend sped by the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing.

For the month of October, the U.S. averaged exports of 7.7 million barrels of oil per day while taking in just 7.6 million barrels per day (bpd), according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Imports were at their lowest since February 1991, EIA reported Wednesday.

Shale gas extraction involves pumping water and special chemicals into deposits deep beneath the earth to break apart hard deposits of the gas-rich shale, then draw the fuel back up.

The “fracking” boom has sparked controversy, with opponents saying it contaminates ground water and causes earthquakes. Advocates argue the industry brings jobs to communities that allow the practice.

The EIA projects fracking will grow significantly as a source of U.S. energy production over the next 30 years.

Along with fracking, lower consumption due to increased prices has helped turn the U.S. into a net oil exporter, according to USA Today

Between January and May, the U.S. managed to satisfy 86 percent of its own needs, Bloomberg reports.

"I think this is huge, and it's another step in this revolution that we're seeing in the energy market," Phil Flynn, an energy analyst at the Price Futures Group in Chicago, told Reuters.

"We're seeing our reliance on imports of crude fall every day."

In its monthly Short Term Energy Outlook, the EIA forecast U.S. oil production rising to 8.88 million bpd in December 2014 and average 8.49 million bpd throughout that year.

Imports, meanwhile, will fall to as low as 5.8 million bpd in December next year and average 6.54 million bpd for the year. The EIA forecasts production outstripping net imports for every month until the end of 2014.

Net petroleum imports into the United States were at 5.67 million bpd, their lowest since 1991, according to the EIA.

The White House said the country had crossed a "historical milestone in energy independence" and credited falling oil demand to President Barack Obama's policies of increasing vehicle fuel efficiency and encouraging biofuel production.

U.S. output including natural gas liquids and biofuels has swelled 3.2 million bpd since 2009, the fastest expansion over a four-year period since a surge in Saudi Arabia's output from 1970-1974, according to energy consultancy PIRA.

The U.S. October production rates are the highest since May 1989, according to EIA data. Output had been broadly declining since the late 1980s until around 2010 when the results of shale drilling kicked in.

While the existence of shale oil had been known for decades, few thought it would be economically viable to exploit the resources due to the expensive technology and extensive drilling required.

But by combining horizontal drilling, which reaches more of an oil reservoir that is shallow but expands across large areas, with hydraulic fracturing, where rock is fractured using water and chemicals to ease the oil out of the reservoir, the shale enigma was finally cracked.

Some in the industry have been speculating whether export restrictions — imposed after the 1970s Arab oil embargo provided a rude awakening to the dependence of the country on foreign oil — could be eased in years to come.

"This is the point we've been trying to get to since the '70s when we thought, gosh, we can be held hostage. Every president since then has been talking about the need for energy independence," Flynn said.

"Some natural gas and liquefied natural gas exports have begun, and if that goes fairly well, it may have the U.S. revisit some of the rules we put in place after the crisis in the '70s and rethink some of those policies. That's how different the world is now," he said.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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