The controversial practice of "fracking" helped keep North American fuel prices from soaring this summer even as supply disruptions in the Middle East and North Africa hit a 23-year high.
The surge in United States oil production – made possible through horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing – has more than offset unplanned supply outages in embattled Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) member nations, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) said Wednesday.
Those types of geopolitical crises have typically sent global oil prices sharply higher. Instead, crude prices have fallen since early July, hitting 14-month lows last week.
In a note Wednesday, the EIA noted American liquids production climbed by four-million barrels a day between January, 2011, and July, 2014. While that figure includes crude, biofuels and natural gas liquids, it mostly reflects the tight oil boom. U.S. crude production increased by three-million barrels a day in the time frame, predominantly from North Dakota's Bakken and Texas's Eagle Ford plays.
The U.S. has emerged as the world's largest liquids producer, and is expected to surpass Russia and Saudi Arabia in crude output in the coming years. Fuelled by rising output in the oil sands, meanwhile, Canadian crude production grew by roughly 700,000 barrels a day in that period.
In the same period, the amount of crude taken off the market due to civil war and other crises in OPEC member nations increased by 2.8-million barrels a day.
The 2.8 million barrels a day of crude taken off the market between 2001 and 2014 was the highest figure since the 1990-1991 Gulf War shut down exports from Iraq and Kuwait.
In the past – and as recently as the 2011 "Arab Spring" – disruptions among major OPEC producers resulted in costly price spikes that provided windfalls to North American producers but punished consumers and were particularly problematic for the U.S. balance of trade.
Trading was muted on markets Wednesday as investors weighed the tradeoffs between a strengthening U.S. economy, geopolitical risk and rising North American production. North Sea Brent rose 22 cents to close at $102.72 (U.S.) a barrel, while West Texas Intermediate – the key North American benchmark – dropped two cents to $93.88 (U.S.).
Prices spiked briefly in June amid fears that the Islamic State group could threaten Iraqi oil production, but those concerns subsided after U.S. and Baghdad stymied its advances. Despite ongoing supply outages in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Iran, crude prices have been remarkably stable. The leading international benchmark, North Sea Brent, has traded in a $5 (U.S.) range for past 14 months when measured by the monthly average.
"Typically, if you had the kind of geopolitical events we've been through in the recent months, oil prices would have skyrocketed," said Bank of Nova Scotia economist Patricia Mohr.
Libya is also slowly returning to the global oil market as the central government has been able to resume shipments from eastern ports, far from the ongoing turmoil in Tripoli. As a result, Libya is now competing with producers from West Africa, who have seen their exports to the United States virtually eliminated, forcing them to find new markets in Europe and elsewhere and putting downward pressure on international prices.
While Ms. Mohr said we may see some increase in crude prices, she has reduced her estimate for 2014 and 2015 average prices by $3 (U.S.) a barrel from earlier this year. "This has to do with the belief that U.S. light, tight oil will continue to increase rapidly," she said.
But she added the conflict in Iraq – which was expected to see major production growth – will result in reduced capital investment and lower production in the future than had been forecast.
Economists at Morgan Stanley expect to see further weakness in international crude prices, which would drag down North American prices. "We expect Brent to trade in a slightly lower range for much of 3Q14, barring any geopolitical escalation," the bank's economist said in a note this week.