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Shale boom to put US on top of petroleum output league

Published:Wednesday | October 1, 2014 | 12:00 AM

By Ed Crooks in New York and Anjli Raval in London

The United States is overtaking Saudi Arabia to become the world's largest producer of liquid petroleum, in a sign of how its booming oil production has reshaped the world of energy.

US production of oil and related liquids such as ethane and propane was neck-and-neck with Saudi Arabia in June and again in August at about 11.5m barrels per day, according to the International Energy Agency, the watchdog backed by rich countries.

With US production continuing to boom, its output is set to exceed Saudi Arabia's this month or next for the first time since 1991.

Riyadh has stressed that the US's growing role should not overshadow its own critical role in oil markets. It says it has the ability to increase its output by 2.5m barrels a day if needed to balance supply and demand.

Prince Abdulaziz Bin Salman Bin Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia's deputy oil minister, said earlier this month that the kingdom was the "only country with usable spare oil production capacity".

However, even Saudi officials do not deny that the rise of the US to become the world's largest petroleum producer - with an even greater lead if its biofuel output of about 1m b/d is included - has played a vital role in stabilising markets.

Global crude prices have fallen in the past two years, in spite of the turmoil in Syria and Iraq, fighting in Libya and Russia's conflict with Ukraine. Brent crude hit its lowest level in more than two years last week at about US$95.60 per barrel, down from a peak of more than US$125 per barrel early in 2012. Over that period, the growth in US production of more than 3.5m b/d has almost equalled the entire increase in world oil supplies.

The US industry has been transformed by the shale revolution, with advances in the techniques of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling enabling the exploitation of oilfields, particularly in Texas andNorth Dakota, that were long considered uncommercial.

Crude prices that are high by the standards of a decade or more ago have made it profitable to use those techniques to extract oil. US production of crude hit 8.87m barrels per day earlier this month, up from 5m b/d in 2008, and is on course to break through 9m b/d before the end of the year.

US crude oil production in August was still lower than either Saudi Arabia's, at about 9.7m b/d, or Russia's at 10.1m b/d. The overall US leadership in petroleum is accounted for by its higher production of natural gas liquids such as ethane and propane, which have a lower energy content and are often used as feedstocks for the petrochemical industry rather than for fuel.

Still, on current trends the US could catch up with Saudi Arabia and Russia on crude production alone by the end of the decade.

(c) 2014 The Financial Times Limited