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It is a cliché to say the United States has no energy policy, and in the formal sense, it's true. The federal government has never passed sweeping legislation aimed at advancing U.S. energy security that addresses both supply and demand. But even without top-down direction, America currently has a better, most sensible approach to energy development than any other country in the world, both for the short- and long-term.

Where government policy has been absent, free markets have filled the void – with great success. Thanks to technological innovation and free-flowing capital markets, U.S. energy companies have harnessed the country's abundant shale resources, and America is now the world's largest oil and gas producer, on its way to becoming a net exporter by 2022.

That’s nothing short of miraculous given the country's massive economic dependence on oil and gas imports only a decade ago. The shale boom has been an enormous boon to the U.S. economy, helping to pull the country out of the 2008 financial crisis, providing jobs and growth at a time when few other sectors could.

 

Meanwhile, the rise of cheap shale gas has resulted in large-scale displacement of coal in U.S. power generation, resulting in falling carbon emissions – something many European countries fail to accomplish despite carbon pricing there.

Energy security has never been better, meaning the president has considerably more flexibility in setting foreign policy. In short, the economic, environmental and geopolitical benefits of the U.S. energy boom have been huge.

But there’s more. As the low-carbon energy transition plays out, investors and energy executives around the world are starting to debate when demand for oil and gas peaks seriously. Peak demand is important because it signals that a sector’s growth trajectory has ended and that a mature industry has begun to decline.

While it’s impossible to say with any certainty when this will occur – some say as soon as five years while others, probably more astutely, put it after 2035 – the approach of peak demand will prompt some investors to exit the sector. Look no further than the U.S. coal industry over the last decade for evidence of capital flight stemming from peak demand.

Again, this event may not take place for decades. But from a macroeconomic energy policy standpoint, no country wants to be left with “stranded assets,” barrels of oil or BTUs of gas in the ground that can’t be produced because there is insufficient demand for them. OPEC nations hold over 1.2 trillion barrels of oil reserves or 82% of the world’s total. This is why the cartel has historically held so much sway over global oil markets. But undeveloped oil reserves become meaningless – and possibly worthless – if investors start to lose interest.

The United States, by contrast, is producing flat out, with oil production at a world-leading 11 million barrels a day. But its reserves are far smaller at 35.2 billion barrels. To put it in perspective, OPEC is now producing about 32.7 million barrels a day from its 1.2 trillion barrels of reserves. And the only thing holding back the United States from producing more is infrastructure constraints – a lack of pipeline and export facilities to facilitate higher shipments abroad from its prolific shale plays, where output can be ramped up or throttled back relatively quickly and easily.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke recently said that U.S. oil production might rise to as much as 14 million barrels a day by 2020. Given potential demand constraints down the road – again, even if it’s a very long road – the United States effort to produce as much as possible as quickly as possible from its shale resources is the right strategy.

This is why we should not be alarmed when some leading U.S. energy executives say that shale output could peak in the middle of next decade. That outcome is by no means certain – indeed, some independent analysts continue to increase their estimates for recoverable shale reserves – but if it happens the United States will have derived as much value as possible from the resource, without leaving anything to “stranded” chance.

OPEC, with its members’ political issues and its continued focus on oil market management, may not be able to say the same thing. Russia, shackled by crippling Western sanctions, may not be able to tell it either.

Concerns about new investments “long-dated” oil projects are already reflected in the capital spending plans of the world’s largest oil companies. Majors, the ones that generally pursue these types of mega projects with long investment horizons, have uncharacteristically failed to ratchet up capital expenditures in response to higher oil prices. Many are moving more aggressively into short-cycle shale or putting more capital into gas or LNG, not the humongous offshore projects of yesteryear like Kashagan or the costly, carbon-intensive oil sands of Canada. Free cash flow is being directed to shareholders, not new investments in dubious long-term oil projects.

Even Mideast OPEC states like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait look reluctant to invest more in spare oil production capacity. Many are investing more heavily in petrochemicals or refineries at home or abroad, projects that will stimulate demand for their existing oil reserves. OPEC has regularly warned in recent years of the perils of under-investment, urging IOCs to step up capital expenditures. But it, for the most part, is not walking the walk itself. This helps explain why Saudi Arabia has expressed its willingness to raise its production to its full capacity of 12 million barrels a day if necessary, as the United States prepares to hit Iran with harsh energy sanctions. Riyadh has said it will invest $20 billion over the coming years to maintain – not necessarily expand – its output capacity at 12 million barrels a day. Such caution is telling considering the kingdom is sitting on 260 billion barrels of the world’s lowest cost reserves.

As the global industry begins to think more in terms of years rather than decades in making investment decisions, it becomes clear that the United States may be in the most enviable position with its short-cycle shale assets and free market economy. Indeed, maybe it has been better off without any formal energy policy from Washington at all.

I am CEO of Canary, one of the largest privately-owned oilfield services companies in the United States. I've served as a consultant to the energy industry in North America, Asia and Africa. My commentaries have been published in The Hill, Real Clear Energy, and the Economis...

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