March 6, 2012: A pumping unit sucks oil from the ground near Greensburg, Kan. U.S. oil output is surging so fast that the United States could soon overtake Saudi Arabia as the world's biggest producer. 2012 marked the fourth straight year of crude increases.AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
An artist's rendering of a robotic, subsea oil separation system by a Houston's gas and oil exploration company.FMC Technologies
A wealth of new technologies -- from underwater robots to 3-D scanners to nano-engineered lubricants -- are transforming the energy exploration industry in ways that will hasten the end of America’s reliance on Middle East oil.
That’s the take on America’s “secret energy revolution,” according to a report in the Washington Guardian. And the proof is in the balance sheets: According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, monthly imports of oil peaked in Sept. 2006 at 12.7 million barrels per day and has declined 40 percent since then, to 7.6 million barrels in Nov. 2012.
That’s partly due to falling demand, as the U.S. economy contracted and drivers with smaller wallets balked at the high price of gas. Cars became more fuel efficient as well, often powered by batteries rather than gas. But it’s also largely due to the increased production of oil on U.S. shores, the IISS said.
'Myriad advances are opening up titanic new supplies of fossil fuels, many of them in unexpected places … perhaps most significantly, North America.'
- Vince Beiser, a Pacific Standard senior editor
“Rising production of liquid fuels in the United States accounts for 60 percent of the fall in U.S. oil imports since 2006 and nearly 100 percent since 2010,” the group reported. If the trend continues, the U.S. could become oil independent in the coming years, they added.
What’s led to such a surge? An assortment of new technologies and innovative means to tap the oil trapped in shale rock formations, helping sip every last drop from deep wells beneath U.S. soil.
“Nanoengineered materials, underwater robots, side-scanning 3-D sonar, specially engineered lubricants, and myriad other advances are opening up titanic new supplies of fossil fuels, many of them in unexpected places … perhaps most significantly, North America,” wrote Vince Beiser in Pacific Standard.
The problem for domestic oil has never been a lack of supply, surprisingly. It’s been the inability to tap into that oil, Beiser noted. Fracking is the most high-profile means of doing so, a method for pumping pressurized, specially treated mud into the dense shale formations that trap oil and gas. Fracking has brought with it real environmental concerns, however, including charges that it increases the risk of earthquakes and pollutes ground water.
But there’s no doubt the process succeeds in getting fuel out of the ground. “Fracking is about as popular with the general public as puppy kicking, but it’s very big business,” Beiser wrote. American shale gas production totaled 320 billion cubic feet in 2000; in 2011, the number was 7.8 trillion.
That’s by no means the only innovation.
To hit some of the deepest ocean wells, Houston’s FMC Technologies wants to move oil production to the bottom of the ocean, with special undersea robots built to survive the incredible pressure at those depths.
“We are not far from this vision. Maybe 15 years,” Paulo Couto, a vice president of technology for FMC, told Pacific Standard. Other companies are using chemistry to tweak the mud shot down pipes into the ground to lubricate the path for drills, and using new means to detect the pockets of oil that do lie nearby.
“The dynamics of abundant fuel supplies will be a catalyst for major geo-political shifts,” the Washington Guardian wrote.