Following 30 years of declining oil output in the Lower 48 states, the United States now is well on its way to becoming energy independent — a structural supply shift that promises to reach well beyond oil and natural gas stocks, analysts with Raymond James & Associates Inc. said in a note last week.

At the same time, demand for oil appears to be faltering at an unprecedented rate because high gasoline prices have encouraged less driving, more vehicle efficiency and more natural gas vehicles, which also has contributed to less demand for imported oil, wrote J. Marshall Adkins and Pavel Molchanov in their Energy Stat of the Week.

“Combining rising supply and declining demand equates to a substantial ongoing reduction in the U.S. net oil import requirement,” said the duo. “Specifically, we are looking for net U.S. oil imports to fall from 13.5 million b/d (65% of demand) in 2005 and 9.8 million b/d (52% of demand) in 2011, to an estimated 4.5 million b/d (26% of demand) by 2015 and actual oil independence by 2020.

While not always showing a direct correlation, Energy Information Administration data over the last few years reveals what one might expect. As U.S. field production of crude oil rises, imports of crude and petroleum products into the country decline.

Data show that U.S. field production of crude tallied 188,904,000 bbl during January, a level domestic production has not reached since October 1998 when 190,420,000 bbl was produced. Meanwhile, the United States imported 339,255,000 bbl of crude and petroleum products during January, a low mark not seen since February 2011 when the country imported 294,094,000 bbl.

“The resulting savings from the standpoint of the trade deficit are highly meaningful, especially when the benefits of cheaper energy for domestic manufacturing are taken into account. Maybe the real question is: when will Washington apply to join OPEC?”

Adkins and Molchanov took notice of President Obama’s attempt to raise taxes on U.S. producers “in an effort to deflect public discontent over high gasoline prices. For now, let’s ignore the economic assumption that higher taxes on the companies that produce energy will never lower the price of energy. Instead, let’s focus on President Obama’s ‘all of the above’ plan for energy independence,” where he has claimed “we cannot drill our way out of this problem.”

Since the 1970s, every president “has made these types of high profile energy independence speeches,” analysts noted. “Like others before it, [Obama’s] recent speech will ultimately be proven off-base (in a good way) since our math says the U.S. is already beginning to drill our way out of the problem. The fact is that U.S. oil and gas companies have already overcome government road blocks (i.e., the Environmental Protection Agency) and geological challenges to reverse a nearly four-decade-long decline in oil supply.”

There are some risks to the analysis, the duo noted.

“For both of the variables we analyzed — domestic oil demand and domestic oil supply — there are both upside and downside risks, especially looking as far out as 2020. For demand, our bias is to the downside. Our long-term assumption of 1.5% annualized declines may well end up being too conservative (in other words, U.S. oil demand will likely fall faster than we are modeling) if alternative energy sources (especially natural gas) end up displacing even more oil consumption than we are expecting.

“For U.S. oil supply, our bias is to the upside relative to our model. Our 2015-2020 assumption of 5% annualized growth in U.S. oil production represents a sharp slowdown from what we anticipate over the next several years.”

Field decline rates in most of the new supply sources, be they shale or deepwater, are “quite” steep, but the ongoing trend of increasing drilling activity and improving well productivity “suggests that higher growth should be sustainable for more than a decade,” said the analysts.

The duo also didn’t factor in any new shale plays –including the Utica Shale — in their model (see related story).

Besides a sudden collapse in West Texas Intermediate “oil prices, the only scenario we can envision where domestic oil volumes would stop growing in the foreseeable future is a federal ban on hydraulic fracturing, massive government-driven infrastructure delays, or other drastic regulatory changes.”

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