Predictions of U.S. dominance in the world oil market are a stunning reversal from the grim energy forecasts of a few years ago. Headlines are trumpeting that the United States could soon surpass Saudi Arabia as the world's largest oil producer. Let that sink in for a moment.
After 40 years of hand-wringing over foreign energy dependence and oil disruptions, the Department of Energy reports that U.S. oil and other liquid hydrocarbon production, including biofuels, will reach an average of 11.4 million barrels per day next year -- just below Saudi Arabia's level of 11.6 million barrels. Citibank projects that U.S. production could climb to 13 million to 15 million barrels per day by 2020, making North America "the new Middle East."
These glowing reports can be credited to our truly unique, and American, system of private mineral rights, and to American ingenuity and the countless hours invested in developing the technologies used to improve oil and natural gas production. Horizontal drilling, seismic study innovations and hydraulic fracturing (known as "fracking") are producing more energy from old wells and unlocking oil and natural gas from hard-rock formations, including the Marcellus and Utica shales, in the Rust Belt.
IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, or IHS CERA, says the shale drilling boom supports nearly 1.8 million U.S. jobs today and will create an additional 1.3 million jobs by 2020.
But there remains one great danger -- new policies that could hinder U.S. oil and gas production in coming months. Unfounded claims that stoke fear of fracking, overreaching regulations, and a questionable water-quality study by the Environmental Protection Agency threaten to turn the bonanza into a bust if left unchallenged.
In their effort to find a link between fracturing and ground water contamination, EPA regulators tested water in three locations: Dimock, Pa., where they found no connection between fracturing and the well water troubles featured in the documentary "Gasland"; Parker County, Texas, where the EPA quietly dropped a water contamination case against a drilling company; and Pavillion, Wyo., where the agency hopes to bolster its highly criticized 2011 study.
In December 2011, the EPA reported that two ground water monitoring wells found "likely impact to ground water that can be explained by hydraulic fracturing." In new tests, the EPA says its results are "generally consistent" with the 2011 findings, but that's because the agency used the same flawed methodology. A separate, scientifically sound study by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) found no link between Pavillion's ground water and fracking.
The EPA's study is important because the agency is trying to build a case for new federal regulations that could delay or even stop hydraulic fracturing. According to a new minority report from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the EPA is expected to deliver on its promise to "crucify" oil and gas companies in 2013.
The Groundwater Protection Council, which represents state water regulators, anticipated the federal government's power grab and issued a report in 2009 that upheld the efficacy of state regulations. It also warned that enactment of federal fracturing regulations would be costly, duplicative "and ultimately ineffective because such regulations would be too far removed from field operations."
New layers of rules could endanger America's best chance for economic growth and energy security. They also could create an obstacle to increased prosperity in the region. The Ohio Chamber of Commerce says the state is likely "to see thousands of new jobs and millions in new investment," if the IHS CERA projection is correct. Only the government can put that in jeopardy.
Keith Mauck is publisher of GoMarcellusShale.com, a site dedicated to discussing the Utica and Marcellus shale plays.