The International Energy Agency said last week that the United States is likely to become the world’s top oil producer by 2016, overtaking Saudi Arabia and bringing the nation closer to energy independence.
While it’s been a widely held notion in the marketplace that increases in North American supply—meaning the U.S. and Canada combined—would bring about a sea change in the crude market, last week’s IEA report noted that U.S. dominance will last for only four years.
So while the highly anticipated production surge will help reduce the West’s dependence on OPEC output, how much does it really matter in the longer term? And is the IEA correct in its assumption that the boom in Texas and North Dakota oilfields will be past its prime by 2020?
“There are real questions about the longevity of the fields,” said John Kilduff, founding partner of Again Capital. “The early going has seen rapid decline rates [in Texas and North Dakota] after about year two or three, which seems to keep the drillers on the move. The rapid advances and rise in production have moved the date forward as to when the U.S. becomes No. 1.”
Other analysts see more longevity in the fields, however.
Justin Jenkins, research associate at Raymond James, said, “Our views on technological advancements continue to bolster our thoughts that U.S. production will continue to grow throughout the decade. As we approach the end of the decade, the growth rates will decline, but our models don’t show any major declines.”
The production boom discussion comes as concerns about supply seem almost nonexistent. In the last three months alone, the U.S. benchmark crude price, West Texas Intermediate, has fallen more than 12 percent, from just under $108 a barrel to slightly less than $94 now.
The slide is good news for consumers, as gas prices have been dropping nationwide. They are down 38 cents from a month ago, with the national average for a gallon of regular at $3.19 and even dipping below $3.00 in parts of the country.
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What’s even more noteworthy about the WTI price is its recent resistance to influence by geopolitical news, specifically headlines out of the Middle East. Domestic crude prices hardly reacted last week when Iran failed to negotiate a deal with the international community on shutting down its nuclear weapons program, while they would have been volatile on similar news a year ago.
But regardless of what’s happening at this moment, the IEA report indicates that U.S. oil prices are unlikely to be free of OPEC’s influence.
“Impacts from the Middle East will still hold some sway,” said Kilduff. “While the U.S. may not have to be concerned about outright shortages, a supply disruption will still spike Brent prices, taking WTI and Gulf Coast prices up with it. There is increasing pressure to allow crude oil exports from the U.S., as well, which would also put U.S. prices back in play, subject to geopolitical upset.”
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Jenkins echoed that position, saying that geopolitical issues will continue be a driving factor in oil prices.
“As we’ve seen with the supply disruptions in Libya, any deterioration in the supply outlook from the Middle East will boost the fear premium in oil prices. However, seaborne crudes like Brent will likely be affected to a greater degree than a domestic benchmark like WTI,” he said.
So where do oil prices go from here? Kilduff and Jenkins both believe they’re headed lower.
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“I expect Saudi Arabia and OPEC to do what they can to curtail production and support prices for a time,” Kilduff said. “Prices could, however, easily trade down to $40 per barrel if supplies really back up. The large amount of oil trapped in Western Canada’s oil sands region is trading about $45 below WTI right now, which gives you a sense of where WTI prices themselves could go.
“The pipeline work being done to move barrels out of Cushing, Okla., will help stave this off for a while, but I refer to it as a movable glut. Gulf Coast prices will come under pressure, giving a great price advantage to the refiners in that region, especially the Houston Ship Channel,” he added.
Jenkins also thinks prices are going lower as “the structural supply-demand fundamentals point to an oversupplied market that should only get worse over the next several years.”
He is not quite as bearish as Kilduff, though. Raymond James forecasts that domestic oil prices in 2015 will be $70 a barrel and that Brent will trade at $90 a barrel.
—By CNBC’s Jackie DeAngelis. Follow her on Twitter @JackieDeAngelis.