Oil prices will persist near or above $50 a barrel for years and force a shift to more fuel-efficient cars and alternative fuels, the government...

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WASHINGTON — Oil prices will persist near or above $50 a barrel for years and force a shift to more fuel-efficient cars and alternative fuels, the government said Monday, discarding earlier predictions that costs would drop to around $30 a barrel.

The Energy Department was more positive on natural-gas prices. It said they would retreat from the recent spikes — to more than $14 per thousand cubic feet — and settle at under $5 in the long term as demand weakens, especially for electricity production.

The analysis reflected a significant change from a year ago, when the department predicted oil prices in constant dollars — not counting normal inflation — would settle at about $31 a barrel by 2025.

The new report said oil prices will remain in the mid-$40 range or higher in coming years and average $54 a barrel by 2025, increasing to an average $57 a barrel by 2030 when adjusted for inflation.

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Crude-oil prices have been hovering around $60 a barrel, briefly soaring as high as $70 earlier this year.

The long-term forecast, which attempts to gauge the nation’s energy picture 20 years from now, assumed no major policy shift such as future restrictions on “greenhouse” gases — including carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels — to combat climate change.

Nor did it assume the government will allow oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. A proposal to open the refuge to drilling is being heatedly debated in Congress.

Any major policy shift such as curbing fossil-fuel use to counter global warming “would change the picture dramatically,” especially in the use of coal for generating electricity, said Guy Caruso, head of the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the Energy Department’s statistical agency, which issued the report.

Demand for crude oil and natural gas is expected to continue to increase, but not as sharply as had been forecasted a year ago.

And the report projected a growth in electricity production from nuclear-power plants with construction of at least six large reactors, beginning after 2014.

A year ago, the agency said it saw no new reactors on the horizon.

At the same time, the agency said energy production would result in a steady 1.2 percent a year increase in the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere.

Annual carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels will be 28 percent higher in 2025 than they are today, the EIA said.

With oil prices expected to remain high, the use of unconventional transportation fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel will grow in acceptance, the agency said.

The report also projected a sharp increase in the use of hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles and more fuel-efficient diesel technology.

“We will see increases in fuel efficiency … all directly related to the [new] price assumptions” for oil, said energy official Caruso at a news conference.

U.S. demand for oil is expected to be 2 million barrels a day less than what the EIA projected a year ago, or about 26 million barrel a day — some 6 million barrels more than what is used today.

The EIA projected that U.S. reliance on oil imports will remain about the same as today, with the country in 2025 importing about 60 percent of the oil and refined products it uses.

A year ago, the EIA said these imports would grow to 68 percent by 2025.

The agency said it added about $21 to the projected future price of a barrel of crude because analysts no longer believe today’s tight global oil market will ease in the coming decades.

This is primarily due to a belief OPEC oil production would be about 11 million barrels a day less in 2025 than earlier forecasts.

“The oil is there,” said Caruso, dismissing suggestions by some economists that global oil reserves may be peaking.

But he said “it appears the pace of investment in oil production is less than what was anticipated a year ago” among OPEC countries.

He did not name specific countries.

The report also:

• Scaled back the expected growth of liquefied-natural-gas imports into the United States.

It said an increase of worldwide demand for LNG will reduce the amount coming here.

• Said coal would remain the primary fuel for producing electricity through 2030.

• Predicted that despite higher oil costs and some increases in efficiency, overall U.S. energy demand would increase 1.1 percent a year between now and 2030.