The Next Prize

Courtesy Reuters


A new global energy business -- natural gas -- is emerging. It will have a far-reaching impact on the world economy, bringing new opportunities and risks, new interdependencies and geopolitical alignments. As natural gas becomes a traded global commodity, it will be critical to meeting a host of urgent needs. The United States needs it to keep the lights on and stave off a coming energy shortage, Europe to rejuvenate its industry, developing countries to boost growth, and all of them to meet their aspirations to have a cleaner environment.

The change will be accomplished both with long-distance pipelines and with natural gas that ironically is no longer in gaseous form, having been liquefied through cooling. This "liquefied natural gas" (LNG) will be carried in tankers that can change direction on the high seas to respond to sudden shifts in demand or prices. Thanks to this emerging global commodity market, lights, air conditioning, and factories in the United States will run on electricity that is sometimes generated with natural gas from Indonesia, the Algerian desert, the seas of Trinidad or Nigeria, the island of Sakhalin in the easternmost part of Russia, the frigid northern waters of Norway, or the foothills of the Andes.

Yet, one of the more haunting aspects of this new global gas business is its reminder of the transformational years of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the United States became integrated with the world oil market. In a few short years, the United States went from being a minor petroleum importer to a major one. The surge in demand from the world markets, pulled by the engine of the American economy, helped set the scene for the oil crises of the 1970s and created dependencies with which the world still wrestles.

For more than half a century, the United States has been broadly self-sufficient in natural gas, save for imports from Canada. In the next five years, it is likely to become

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