ISTANBUL — Fatih Birol, the International Energy Agency’s chief economist, is not prone to hype. So industry executives listen when he calls the surge of U.S. oil and gas production “the biggest change in the energy world since World War II.”

“This is bigger even than the development of nuclear energy,” said Birol in an interview just minutes after he had briefed dozens of the world’s leading energy players and policy makers over breakfast at the fourth annual Atlantic Council Energy and Economic Summit here on the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2012. “This has implications for the whole world.”

Where Birol lingered longest in his briefing was on a slide, projected for dramatic effect on a giant overhead screen. It was history by PowerPoint, first showing U.S. energy production through 2030 from conventional sources. That scenario left America as a middling producer requiring imports as far as the eye could see. The next two overlays added shale gas and “tight oil” – products of hydraulic fracking, horizontal drilling and America’s God-given geology. According to IEA projections, the U.S. will overtake Russia as the world’s top gas producer by 2015 and will pass Saudi Arabia as the No. 1 global oil producer by 2017. By 2035 the U.S. is likely to be energy self-sufficient and an exporter of oil and liquefied natural gas. Experts are only now beginning to absorb a gusher of geopolitical consequences.

 

Just when it seemed America’s global influence might be ebbing, the world’s leading military and economic power was adding unconventional energy weapons to its arsenal. The Obama administration – confronting fiscal cliffs, Middle Eastern conflagrations and China’s rise — is only now beginning to understand how to leverage this energy windfall as the president shifts his efforts from re-election to historic legacy.

Those who have despaired about American decline – either relative or absolute — in a world where less democratic and benevolent powers are rising, now hope for an American comeback. Those less inclined toward U.S. leadership worry that this fossil-fuel blessing might reverse the tide toward a more politically humble and environmentally conscious America.