As American Energy Imports Shrink, Will China Take Over?

America could be energy independent in two decades while China still has to import.

A recent study from the British oil company BP confirms that the United States could be energy independent within two decades. China, however, will still have to rely on imports, raising the possibility of increased Chinese engagement in the Middle East.

BP predicts (PDF) that by 2030, the United States will have to import just 1 percent of their energy. As recently in 2005, the country was one of the largest oil importers in the world but advances in shale technology, particularly for the extraction of natural gas, have revolutionized the industry.

The United States Energy Information Administration previously estimated that nearly half of crude oil consumption could be produced domestically before the end of the decade. Oil production has increased by 1.6 million barrels per day since 2008 to six million. The Government Accountability Office reported in May of last year that up to three trillion barrels of oil are recoverable from shale between the states of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah — the equivalent of the entire world’s proven oil reserves.

Moreover, by 2035, shale could account for nearly half of America’s natural gas production.

BP expects that China will be able to meet some 20 percent of demand for natural gas by shale but will still have to import 11 percent by 2030. Chinese oil reserves are similarly insufficient to fuel a growing economy and population.

While the United States import just 13 percent of their oil from countries bordering the Persian Gulf — Canada and Latin American countries are its main providers — the dependence explains in part the nation’s active diplomatic and military involvement in the region.

China has so far demonstrated little willingness to act in a similar capacity outside its immediate neighborhood. Even if it buys most of South Sudan’s oil, it has refused to meddle in that country’s dispute with the north. Even if it’s one of Iran’s main customers, it has hardly challenged Western powers’ oil embargo that prohibits the Islamic republic from exporting. But once the United States no longer have to import fuel from the Middle East and disengage from the region, China may be hard pressed not to assume the role of offshore balancer to keep the oil flowing — eastward.