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Is the American dream of energy independence dead?

Low oil prices since mid-2014 have claimed many victims in the oil industry with oil workers' jobs lost, rigs closed and exploration projects shelved. And no more so than in the U.S., a country which had hoped that its shale oil and gas "revolution" could lead to U.S. energy independence by 2020.

Things have changed dramatically in global oil markets since the shale oil boom around 2010, however, making those expectations more dream than reality for now.

"I don't know if it's physically possible for us to ever get to a point where we don't need to import certain types of crude," Suzanne Minter, Oil & Natural Gas analyst at Platts Analytics, told CNBC.

"You look at our crude imports and it's about quality. We have displaced our light, sweet (crude) imports but the barrels we bring in we need to run through our refineries and to blend with the product we make."


Pump jacks and wells on the Monterey Shale formation in California
David McNew / Stringer | Getty Images News
Pump jacks and wells on the Monterey Shale formation in California

Oil prices having fallen since mid-2014 on a glut in global supply -- caused in no small part by the rise in U.S. oil output which was consumed domestically, reducing the need for crude imports, and the refusal of oil group OPEC to cut production itself -- and failure of demand to keep pace, largely down to an economic slowdown, particularly in China.

Oil prices fell from a high of $114 in June 2014 to the low point of around $26 in early 2016 but have recovered slightly since then with a barrel of benchmark Brent crude currently trading at $45.11 while U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) is trading at $44.16.

Some analysts had forecast ahead of the decline in oil prices that shale oil and gas could enable the U.S. to be energy independent by 2020 but that is looking more of a pipe dream for now. While the U.S. produces around 9.2 million barrels a day of oil, according to government data from February, its net imports still totaled 7.3 million barrels in the same month.

Shale oil resilient?

Despite OPEC's decision in late 2014 to maintain production in order to retain its market share in the face of rival shale oil "newcomers," the shale oil industry in the

U.S. was nothing new. The industry had operated in the country for decades although it accelerated in the early 2000s following a government-led shale oil development program.

But with declining oil prices over the last few years, U.S. producers found it hard to break even.

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According to the last weekly rotary rig count by Baker Hughes in the week of May 6, 479 oil rigs had closed from the same period last year, leaving 451 rotary rigs in action. Showing how fortunes have changed in a short period of time, in 2011, Baker Hughes data shows that there were over 2,000 rigs in action in the U.S.

Platts' Minter said that OPEC had underestimated the resilience of shale oil producers, however. "Shale has proved itself to be much more long-lived than people had thought originally," Minter noted. "People assumed that (U.S. shale oil) wells had 12-24 months of decline curves and would then go away."

"What's so different about U.S. production compared to anywhere else in the globe is that there are 9,000 of us (producers) so as prices fell, if the individual producer could make it work for them, they kept making it work – and I think that was what was not expected (by other non-U.S. producers)."

In late 2015, the U.S. decided to lift a 40-year old ban on crude oil exports partly, at least, to help shale oil producers. Minter thought it could give U.S. producers more access to trade.

"I do think, though, that now that you've got this export ban lifted out of the U.S., it flattens the playing field once again to where I have something that somebody else might want so it's not a one-way street anymore."

With oil prices starting to rise slowly, oil market analysts expect that a rebalancing of supply and demand in the market is starting to take effect. Minter believed that in the next three to five years, oil prices could recover to around $70 a barrel. "This is a blip in time so everybody should enjoy it. But once we get rid of the backlog of wells we're going to move on and we're going to need higher prices to keep on drilling."