Future Tense

Under Obama, U.S. Leads the World in Oil and Gas Production

Oil drilling, Bakken shale, North Dakota

Oil producers have found plenty to smile about in North Dakota.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The United States will pass Russia this year to lead the world in production of oil and natural gas, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports.

America has been closing in on Russia since 2008 thanks to a boom in both oil and gas production, primarily on private lands. This year it’s on track to out-produce it by a substantial margin. Saudi Arabia is third overall and remains the world’s largest oil producer—though the United States may be on track to take that title as well.

“This is a remarkable turn of events,” the head of the EIA told the Wall Street Journal. “This is a new era of thinking about market conditions, and opportunities created by these conditions, that you wouldn’t in a million years have dreamed about.”

As recently as 2007, economists were writing things like, “the amount of oil produced in America each year has been on a path of inexorable decline now for two generations.” Turns out the path was exorable after all. All it took was a whole lot of fracking. As the Guardian notes, Russia has vast shale formations, but “has lagged behind the United States in its embrace of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to get at the oil and gas.”

To be clear, the domestic hydrocarbon boom has been driven by the private sector and not the government. Still, it has transpired under the eye of an executive who is not nearly so anti-drilling as his opponents have made him out to be. In a presidential debate a year ago, Mitt Romney sought to paint Obama as an enemy of all fossil fuels. “This has not been Mr. Oil or Mr. Gas or Mr. Coal,” he chided. In fact, while drilling on federal lands has been stagnant or declined, the oil and gas industries have fared remarkably well under Obama on the whole. He certainly isn’t Mr. Coal, but based solely on the numbers, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch at this point to call him Mr. Oil or Mr. Gas.

Perhaps that will change now that his top adviser on energy and climate change is stepping down, but it seems unlikely. As he is on most issues, Obama is a pragmatist on energy and the environment, preferring to chip away at carbon emissions without sending energy costs soaring. Environmentalists may well lament that a Democratic president has overseen such a boom in hydrocarbon production, but they can take solace in his long-awaited war on coal. Republicans may condemn the war on coal, but they can take solace in the oil and gas boom. A good compromise leaves partisans on both sides mad.

And let’s face it: No matter which side you’re on, if someone had told you when Obama took office that the United States would substantially ramp up its oil and gas production while substantially reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, you probably would have scoffed. But here we are, poised to produce more oil than Saudi Arabia while cutting carbon emissions by 17 percent by 2020. Not bad, eh? Not bad.

Oil, gas production chart: United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia
The United States has surged past Russia in recent years to lead the world in oil and gas production.

Source: United States Energy Information Administration