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By Robert Rapier on Jul 21, 2015 with 10 responses

Is the U.S. Really the World’s Top Oil Producer?

According to the recently-released BP (NYSE: BP) Statistical Review of World Energy 2014, the U.S. was the world’s largest and most diverse energy producer in 2014. The Statistical Review ranked the U.S.:

  • #1 in oil production
  • #1 in natural gas production
  • #1 in nuclear power
  • #1 in wind power
  • #1 in geothermal power
  • #1 in biofuels
  • #2 in coal production
  • #4 in hydropower
  • #5 in solar power

The U.S. is clearly an energy production superpower, but we are an even greater energy consumer. Thus, despite the large amount of energy production, the U.S. is not energy independent. Our position as the #2 coal producer behind China (not coincidentally) mirrors our #2 position behind China in carbon dioxide emissions. And despite the rapid growth of renewable energy in both countries, carbon dioxide emissions in both countries rose in 2014 (to a new all-time record for China).

Perhaps the most surprising item from this year’s BP Statistical Review was that the U.S. jumped over Russia and Saudi Arabia to regain the crown it had held decades ago as the world’s top oil producer. The Statistical Review reported that U.S. oil production was 11.6 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2014 – nearly 1.6 million bpd higher than in 2013 for the largest one-year gain in U.S. history. This compared to 11.5 million bpd of oil production for Saudi Arabia and 10.8 million bpd for Russia:

Big 3 Oil Production

However, some have disputed this new ranking and argue that it is merely a function of the way the BP Statistical Review defines oil. “Oil” in the BP Statistical Review is defined as “crude oil, tight oil, oil sands and natural gas liquids”, but excludes biofuels and liquid fuels produced from coal or natural gas. Oil consumption numbers do include all liquid fuels, so as a result reported consumption numbers are always greater than reported production numbers.

Most of the increase in U.S. oil production over the past decade is a result of increases in tight oil production in shale formations like the Bakken and Eagle Ford, and natural gas liquids (NGL) production from shale gas drilling in places like the Marcellus Shale. The key to whether the U.S. is now the world’s oil production champ hinges around the classification of NGLs.

NGLs are longer-chain hydrocarbons like ethane, propane and butane that are typically condensed out of natural gas during processing and sold separately. A typical composition of NGLs would be:

  • Ethane (2 carbon atoms; 35-55 percent of the total composition)
  • Propane (3 carbon atoms; 20-30 percent)
  • Normal Butane (4 carbon atoms; 10-15 percent)
  • Isobutane (4 carbon atoms; 4-8 percent)
  • Pentanes and higher hydrocarbons, also called natural gasoline (5 or more carbon atoms; 10-15 percent)

As a byproduct of the shale gas boom, U.S. NGL production has risen to 3.3 million barrels per day, the highest level in history and an increase of about 1.5 million bpd in the past 5 years. U.S. oil production has increased by 4.4 million bpd in the past five years, thus just over a third of the increase in U.S. oil production by volume can be attributed to NGLs.

Those who argue that NGL shouldn’t be counted as oil, and therefore that U.S. oil production is overstated, do so on the basis of 2 points.

The first is that the energy content of NGLs is significantly less than that of crude oil. One gallon of crude oil has an energy content of about 138,000 British thermal units (Btu). One gallon of NGLs has an energy content of around 100,000 BTUs. Thus, just on the basis of energy content, critics argue that at best a gallon of NGLs is worth about 70% of a gallon of oil. And on the basis of price, NGLs are worth even less, having traded at less than half of the price of oil for several years.

The second objection to counting NGLs as oil is that critics argue that NGL isn’t fungible (interchangeable) with oil. Crude oil has numerous uses such as feedstock for petrochemical and plastics production – a role that can’t readily be filled by NGLs.

Both of these points are true, but I would offer up two pieces of information in response.

The first is that last month I attended a conference on flare gas mitigation. (Flare gas mitigation is an important subject that I will address in an upcoming column). Robert Zubrin was a speaker, and he hosted the conference attendees on a visit to his company - Pioneer Energy - outside Denver. Robert’s team is working on a number of interesting projects. They have a 2007 Chevy Cobalt that has been run on a number of fuels, including 100% methanol as documented here. But Robert and his team also modified the car to run on NGLs, which requires the same kind of conversion required to run a car on propane. He claimed that by modifying the timing he was able to achieve fuel efficiency equivalent to the performance on gasoline (36 miles per gallon to be exact), and that the car passed all of Colorado’s emissions tests. He relayed in a later conversation that they tested a blend of 50% diesel and 50% NGLs in a diesel engine and got the same performance as on 100% diesel. Thus, if a gallon of NGLs can replace a gallon of gasoline, then it is functionally oil.


Robert Zubrin and Robert Rapier at the Energy Frontiers International Gas Flare Reduction Conference in Denver

The second point I would make about NGLs is that they don’t have to replace all of the functions of oil in order to count as oil if they displace some of the products derived from oil. Again, consider the example of gasoline. The components of NGLs that are longer than butane can be blended directly into gasoline. Butane can be blended in quantities up to about 10% in winter (See Refining 101: Winter Gasoline). Butane can also be processed into valuable gasoline blendstocks such as alkylates. Lighter NGL components like ethane and propane can be further processed to produce petrochemicals, or they can be used directly as transportation fuel.

So, should the U.S. really be getting credit for oil production as a result of the increase in NGL production? Yes, for the most part. A barrel of NGLs can replace most of a barrel of oil. It’s much more accurate to count NGLs as oil than it is to discount them as insignificant — which is effectively what some critics have done.

Industry is still responding to the shale revolution, but the response takes some time. The shale oil that is being produced is too light for many U.S. refiners, so it is presently trading at a discount to lower quality international crudes. And the NGLs that are the byproduct of shale gas production have overwhelmed the market, temporarily cratering the price. Both of these situations are likely to be temporary as the market reacts to these cheap feedstocks.

If NGLs continue to sell for half the price of gasoline, we will likely see a migration to more vehicles that are capable of running off of NGLs – which were recently trading at $0.60/gallon. We are already seeing chemical manufacturers respond to cheap NGLs by building new ethylene production capacity in the U.S. (Ethylene crackers use ethane – the major component of NGLs – in the production of ethylene, one of the most important industrial chemicals in the world). In the long run, the extent to which NGLs are used to displace oil will largely be a function of economics.


Returning to the initial question, did the U.S. become the world’s largest oil producer in 2014? According to the definition BP uses to count oil, then the answer is yes. But based on the energy content of the fuel, then no. If BP had counted “barrels of oil equivalent” (BOE) instead of simply “barrels”, then U.S. crude oil production would have been about a million barrels per day lower because the 3.3 million bpd of NGL production would have been about 2.3 million BOE of production. Production for Saudi Arabia and Russia would have also been adjusted down because they make NGLs as well, but in not nearly the volumes produced by the U.S.

However, if we consider all energy production, then the U.S. is the undisputed champion according to the BP Statistical Review. The U.S. is the only country in the world that is in the Top 3 in the categories of oil production, natural gas production, coal production, nuclear power production, and overall renewable energy production.


Link to Original Article: Is the U.S. Really the World’s Top Oil Producer?

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  1. By Forrest on July 21, 2015 at 8:18 am

    Wouldn’t it be best to maintain the oil definition for historical comparisons? Specific production accounting for entire oil drilling harvest would always be required to measure economic success as the drilling formations yields so incomparable. One measure Btu for energy sector and accompanying petrol chemical feedstock barrel. Since the drilling harvest has varying chemical and gas makeup a spreadsheet accounting needed to arrive at economic and energy values. Is this in the BP statistical review of World Energy 2014?The over abundance of NGL explains why the industry hates to blend ethanol. They already floating in butane. Also, why the dragging feet to produce low vapor blend stock. Interesting that higher blends of ethanol which produce very low vapor pressure a natural fuel to blend in low BTU gasoline components. Good that in theory it should lower cost of E85 and bad that it will lower Mpg. It doesn’t go unnoticed that the petrol industry isn’t adapting it’s refineries to U.S. light crude. So, one must conclude the industry thinks the long term outlook is not sufficient to make such a investment. Petrol is having the same problem with EPA that proponents of E30 just experienced. The agency has been awarded by Judge ruling that the law will allow EPA to put fuel development in a no win box. They claim only popular fuels will be certified and simo claim no uncertified fuel can be sold. Huh?

    • By Robert Rapier on July 21, 2015 at 3:25 pm

      “Wouldn’t it be best to maintain the oil definition for historical comparisons?”

      BP has always defined oil in that manner. The EIA breaks it out as “Crude” and “Crude Plus Lease Condensate.” The latter is the equivalent to the BP definition.

  2. By TimC on July 21, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    Kenneth Deffeyes, in his book Hubbert’s Peak, told the story of his father, who as a petroleum engineer in the thirties had to travel all over Oklahoma and Texas, from oil well to oil well. Gasoline was expensive, so to save money he would top off his tank with condensate (NGLs) right at the well head, then drive to the next well. As Deffeyes tells it, his father’s car ran fine and had no negative consequences. Apparently it was a common practice among oil workers in those days to fill up their cars with condensate.

    Certainly no chemist would consider propane or butane to be oils, since the definition of an oil is a compound that in its pure state is a liquid at standard temperature and pressure.

  3. By Reid Vapor Pressure on July 21, 2015 at 5:35 pm


    What about the vapor pressure issues of NGLs? I thought that was one of the reasons that butane was restricted mostly to cold weather blending. Did Zubrin modify the vapor recovery system such that this is no longer an issue? Did he measure the RVP of his new blends as well?

    • By Robert Rapier on July 21, 2015 at 5:59 pm

      A system like that would definitely have to be under pressure, because the RVP would absolutely be very high. Butane in gasoline is different because it’s a system that is often open to the atmosphere.

  4. By Forrest on July 22, 2015 at 9:12 am

    I have a hard time understanding the operation of gov’t agency for benefit of citizens when increasing my personal competence of the energy sector. Politics appear to wholly shroud and smoke screen the public’s access to good info for intelligent decision making. Media just an extension of politics. Knowing the risk for train transport of crude from light shale oil as compared to the safety upon higher pressure pipeline transport, well the mass public agenda or biases should not control such decisions. We’re supposed to be a Representative Democracy per the ideals of putting more capable experts upon the decision seat, thus avoiding chaos. Also, who could have invoked export restriction upon the petrol bushiness product line and do so within competent decision making? Who is silly enough to think forcing such arcane restrictions good for American consumer? Were awash in restricted exports of oil industry as the markets have changed. The business, markets, technology, and products are continually changing and the industry needs to adjust for maximum return on their product line. Natural gasoline being one. EPA, finally has been forced by courts to tabulate the cost of their regs so voters can ascertain the cost vs benefit. This agency should be flexible to adjust to lower cost conformance. I routinely read data that suggests very cost effective ideas that go to waste can per the expense of conforming to EPA certifications, testing, timelines, decision making, and politics. These agencies of the people are not working as perceived.

  5. By Andrew on July 22, 2015 at 12:44 pm


    For what API / gravity is 138k BTU per gallon of crude (or 100k BTU of NGL)?

    I’d imagine a gallon of Heavy Crude doesn’t go as far as a gallon of Light Crude. Given how wildly variable hydrocarbons are, I’m guessing the “energy equivalence” argument has a fair bit of fudge factor already built into it?

    Even if the average equivalences are adequately representative, how prudent is it to compare products on such a basis (at least without caveat) when so many other things factor into their cost and utility to society?

    Love your column and your book, btw.

  6. By JavelinaTex on July 22, 2015 at 2:40 pm

    One critical substitution that you left out was as feedstock in Ethylene crackers and de-hydrogenation units. Most of the world is uses Naphtha (light gasoline) to make Ethylene, Propylene and heavier olefins like Butylenes and Benzenes and other base chemicals. The US uses Ethane & Propane and some Butanes. Other countries are now moving towards greater capability to use Propane and Butane as substitute feedstocks. China in particular is building dehydrogenation units for Propylene production (as is the US). Some will even import liquified ethane from the US.

    The general conversions here are mass based (as is BP’s analysis in general), not energy. So a pound of propane is nearly as good as a pound of naphtha. However, on a Barrel Basis, they would not match up one to one as a barrel of ethane or propane is way lighter than naphtha. Butane is still lighter, but not as much. It however is less of a direct substitute in the US.

    Also do not forget about direct use of propane and butanes as cooking and heating fuels, especially in developing countries, in lieu of kerosene and distillate.

  7. By CollinMccullough on July 28, 2015 at 11:59 pm

    Hi, Robert

    In my opinion, it’s a good point on how countries also differ in the way they slice up the
    hydrocarbon pie, so-to-speak, when reporting official production data.

    Lumping together everything coming out of the wellhead in liquid
    form as ‘oil’ or ‘liquids’ avoids this and have certainly become the
    industry default terms.

    Having said that, it seems the EIA actually bucks the trend on
    this, defining ‘crude oil’ as liquids hydrocarbons “when brought to the

    Personally, I still think Saudi Arabia is stronger than U.S. in producing oil partially. Anw, thanks for sharing such valuable information. Really appreciate the efforts!

  8. By W Stephens on August 1, 2015 at 7:23 am

    I regularly read the Grantham quarterly letter. He is (rightly, I think) concerned about various resource depletion(s).

    His recent letter has a quote on carbon emissions from various oil sources (and a link to the supporting research paper). Below is a quote from the letter, and I would like your reaction to the information presented, because (I recall) you putting forth a number of around +15% carbon from oil sands compared to some median value.

    ***** (quote) *****

    “No one took in my main point in an earlier quarterly regarding the pipelining of tar sands. (As in Nobody!) The point was that while tar sands oil may not leak any more than regular crude, when it does, diluted bitumen, as it is called, releases poisonous benzene gas and then sinks if it hits water, unlike crude, and costs over 10 times more to clean up.

    There is now another good reason to hope tar sands stay where nature put them and that we skip the XL Pipeline: A recent detailed study of 30 important global oils (different by type and location) looked at how much carbon dioxide is created at every stage, including, in the case of tar sands, the loss of arboreal forest, which occurs before squeezing and heating the sands begins.

    The study measured the differentials in refining and transportation all the way to end-use. We had all heard that products from tar sands caused only 10 or 12% more CO2 to be released than from regular oil, and I for one twitched skeptically, having an image of their colossal operations, which look like they chew energy relentlessly. Well, it turns out that when burned, because their products are on average heavier than those from lighter, more typical oils, they do release only 10 or 12% more CO2 than average. But that only counts when burning the product. When clearing the forest, squeezing out the oil, shipping and refining, and all of the other activities are included, tar sands products release fully 40% more CO2 than the median oil in the study!”


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