CALGARY - The International Energy Agency predicts the United States will be capable of meeting its own energy needs by 2035, but that doesn't necessarily mean its top crude supplier — Canada — has reason to panic.
"The United States, which currently imports around 20 per cent of its total energy needs, becomes all but self-sufficient in net terms — a dramatic reversal of the trend seen in most other energy-importing countries," the Paris-based group said in its World Energy Outlook, released Monday.
Technological advances have helped unlock vast oil supplies from shale rock formations such as the Bakken in North Dakota and Montana.
The increased output, along with stepped up fuel efficiency measures in the transportation sector, mean U.S. oil imports will wane to the extent that North America will become a net exporter around 2030.
The U.S. is expected to overtake Saudi Arabia as the globe's top oil producer before 2020 until about the middle of the next decade when the Saudis take back their top spot.
Canada supplied the United States with about 2.4 million barrels per day, or 29 per cent of its net oil imports, in 2011, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The next-biggest supplier on that list was Saudi Arabia, with about 1.2 million barrels a day, or 14 per cent, followed by Venezuela, Nigeria and Mexico.
Lanny Pendill, an energy analyst at Edward Jones in St. Louis,, said he doubts U.S. thirst for Canadian oil will be quenched any time soon, no matter how optimistic the domestic production forecasts.
"There's a big difference between the U.S. being oil independent and being energy independent," he said.
"Energy is all-inclusive — think coal, nuclear, petroleum, wind, solar, hydro, you name it.
"The U.S. becoming oil independent, to me, is a long shot."
The U.S. oilfields growing most rapidly are mainly churning out light, sweet oil — not the heavy, tougher-to-refine stuff produced in Alberta's oilsands.
The rub is that refinery complexes in the U.S. Midwest and U.S. Gulf Coast are geared to run heavy crude and are increasingly looking for Alberta supplies to supplant declining ones from Mexico and Venezuela.
"There's a chance that the U.S. finds itself in a situation where based on the current refinery setup, that there's a surplus of light sweet. There's a chance for that, but you still need the heavy that the U.S. is not producing," said Pendill.
A federal decision is expected shortly on TransCanada Corp.'s (TSX:TRP) controversial Keystone XL pipeline expansion, which would enable significantly more oilsands crude to flow south of the border.
Even still, there's been a big push for Canada to look beyond the United States as an export customer to energy-hungry markets elsewhere in the world, particularly in Asia.
The IEA report forecasts global energy needs will increase by a third by 2035, with 60 per cent of the additional demand coming from China, India and the Middle East.
That demand growth is something Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has had in mind on recent trips to countries such as India, South Korea and Japan. On Monday, Oliver was on his way back from Hong Kong.
"Today's report supports what our government has been saying all along: Creating new markets for our natural resources is critical for Canadian jobs, economic growth and long term prosperity across our country," a spokesman for Oliver said in an emailed statement.
"We will continue to demonstrate leadership to support proposals that would transport Canadian oil west, south and east, while ensuring the environment is protected."
There are currently two pipeline proposals in the works — Enbridge Inc.'s (TSX:ENB) Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain expansion — to connect growing Canadian supplies to Asia via West Coast export terminals.
Supporters of West Coast oil pipelines call those projects nation-building undertakings of the same magnitude as the national railway that would bring substantial economic benefits to Canada.
But the idea of shipping crude by pipeline through British Columbia's mountainous terrain and then by super tanker through coastal waters has not been sitting well with many, particularly in B.C.
There are fears a spill could cause dire environmental harm and dozens of B.C. First Nations groups have said there are no circumstances under which they would allow an oil pipeline to cross their land.
As an alternative to the controversial West Coast projects, Enbridge and TransCanada are looking east. Both have plans in the works to send crude to Ontario and Quebec, with the possibility of eventually exporting crude through various points in the Atlantic basin.
Norm Lamarche, a portfolio manager at Front Street Capital, said the numbers in the IEA report are largely good news.
"I think we're part and parcel of this thing," he said.
"This is a North American phenomenon, and Canada sits atop as much as America does on cheap energy as a result of these shale plays."
But politicians do need to be paying attention to make sure Canadian resources can fetch the best price possible, Lamarche said .
"I think you have to have governments, at both the federal and the provincial levels, that understand our own predicament and the opportunities that come from all of this. You need an energy policy that is managed I think with the sense of urgency."
Also in its report, the IEA said the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius is becoming more and more difficult and expensive.
No more than one-third of proven fossil fuel reserves can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to meet that target, the IEA said. That's unless, on a widespread basis, carbon dioxide is captured and stored underground — a technology the IEA says is being rolled out at a "highly uncertain" pace.
Those numbers ought to put a damper on oilsands development in the future, said Greenpeace campaign co-ordinator Keith Stewart.
"This report makes it clear that if we care about protecting our kids from the destructive power of a warming planet, we must direct all of our efforts towards improving energy efficiency and making a rapid transition to renewable energy," he said.
"Betting Canada’s economic future on the tar sands is a risky prospect, as the IEA report shows that any serious move to stop global warming would turn the tar sands into the energy equivalent of an 8-track cassette."