World Politics After the Boom in Unconventional EnergyAviezer Tucker
AVIEZER TUCKER is Assistant Director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin.
The energy map of the world is being redrawn -- and the global geopolitical order is adrift in consequence. We are moving away from a world dominated by a few energy mega-suppliers, such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, and toward one in which most countries have some domestic resources to meet their energy needs and can import the balance from suppliers in their own neighborhood. This new world will feature considerably lower energy prices, and in turn, geopolitics will hinge less on oil and gas. Within the next five to ten years, regimes that are dependent on energy exports will see their power diminished. No longer able to raise massive sums from energy sales to distribute patronage and project power abroad, they will have to tax their citizens.
The revolution in unconventional energy production results from technologies that make drilling and extraction from underground shale formations increasingly easy and cheap. One cutting-edge procedure, hydraulic fracturing, involves injecting a mixture of sand, chemicals, and either water, gel, or liquefied greenhouse gases into shale rock formations to extract hydrocarbons. Although the technique was first conceptualized in 1948, only recently have other technologies arrived to make it commercially viable. (One such procedure, horizontal drilling, allows operators to tap into shallow but broad deposits with remarkable precision.)
Hydraulic fracturing has been used widely for only about the past five years. But the result -- a staggering glut of natural gas in the United States -- is already clear. The price of natural gas in the country has plunged to a quarter of what it was in 2008. The low price has prompted changes throughout the U.S. economy, including the projected retirement of one-sixth of U.S. coal power generation capacity by 2020, the conversion of hundreds of thousands of vehicles from gasoline to compressed gas, and the construction and repatriation from China of chemical, plastic, and fertilizer factories that use natural gas as both raw material and fuel. By 2025, the professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts, energy-intensive industries will create a million new U.S. jobs.