Will fracking realign the world?

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Will fracking realign the world?

Experts say that fracking gas and oil will change the world. Dinyar Godrej thinks the changes could be quite different to the most common predictions.

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Coal seam gas site near Casion in New South Wales, Australia. (Lock the Gate Alliance under a Creative Commons Licence)

Everyone loves the idea of lots and lots of gas and oil coming into an energy-hungry world. Even if the gas and oil come from “horizontal hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking”, which destroys the environment. But the dream of energy security is attractive. It could change political realities – at least many Western experts say so.

This is what they say. Fracking is producing a lot of gas and oil – for example in the US. So if the possible fracking areas in the rest of the world produce a lot too, there will be a better balance of power of countries.

Suddenly the US is almost energy independent. This means it does not need to be too friendly with the powerful bad countries like Saudi Arabia. And maybe the monarchies in the Gulf might even have big democratic changes as a result?

The US sanctions against Iran are not important if not linked to energy needs. Maybe the US will stop sending armies to the sensitive zones of the world – you know, where the oil usually is.

Russia will stop feeling superior as Qatar becomes a major supplier of gas to Europe. Why? Because the US has stopped importing gas from Qatar as it has so much gas from fracking. So Qatar has to sell to others. European democracies are happy to not be in the power of the Russian bear.

And they could get gas and oil from fracking too, if the environmental activists get out of the way. (We’ll ignore for the moment that Qatar is an absolute monarchy.)

We could all learn to be friends with China because now there will be enough fuel for everyone. So no-one can say that China is taking all the resources. They can praise them for being productive instead. China has possibly the largest area of frackable natural gas in the world, so they could produce all the energy they need. (For now, it has been allowed to invest billions in US fracking.)

All countries will win. The democratic West, under the protection of America, can finally break free from oppressive leaders and lead the world.

Great!

Fracking it up

The experts who have said they don't agree that we fight wars to make the oil supply safe (they say we fight wars to spread democracy)happily agree that energy needs are the most important thing that creates global power. At least they admit that now.

But it is not certain that this vision of fracking’s influence on geopolitics will come true.

Let’s look at the reality of the world’s most important fracking country, the US. There are many different realities.

One is the idea of ‘energy independence’ (good for winning elections). In his State of the Union address President Obama said: ‘After years of talking about it, we are finally about to control our own energy future.’ This is big thing to say, but not as big as what the industry leaders have said. For example, in 2010, Aubrey McClendon, who was then CEO of Chesapeake Energy, said: ‘In the last few years we have discovered as much natural gas in the US to equal twice as much as Saudi Arabia’s oil.’

Another reality is this. It is true that the US is producing more natural gas than ever before, (40 per cent from fracking), but it might not produce so much in the future. No-one can prove any of the estimates of shale gas resources. People in industry say the resources are big to build confidence and get more investment. They show the current levels of production as proof. But the areas being fracked now in the US are the most promising ones; there is no guarantee that they can continue to extract as much. Some industry leaders say with confidence that there is 100 years’ of natural gas, but the US Energy Information Administration (which often exaggerates estimates) says it’s more like 24 years. And independent analysts say there is only 10 years’ of natural gas left.

Ben Adler, an expert on climate change, said this about oil production: ‘According to the EIA, in 2012 we produced 11.1 million barrels of oil per day, and we used 18.5 million barrels. So we imported 7.4 million barrels per day, which is 40 per cent of our total consumption. That’s the lowest percentage since 1991, but it looks better than it really is. Fifty-seven per cent of that oil we “produced” last year was not taken from US land; it was just refined here after we imported it. That means the gap between what we take out of the ground and what we use is even greater than the numbers suggest. We can never produce enough energy to be energy independent.’

And what about the future? Fracking will probably not change things for a long time. People have estimated that there is a possible (but not proven) 23 to 34.6 billion barrels of resources in the US. This would only be a couple of years’ of US energy use – if they can get all of it. So Saudi Arabia will probably be a special friend for a long time.

A short-term scenario

It is interesting that Gregory Zuckerman, who wrote “The Frackers”(a recent book about how good the new billionaires in the fracking industry are)said: ‘There is a lot of disagreement about the shale wells. This is important because their production falls very quickly. Some sceptics say we are never going to get energy independence. I agree. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, maybe… five years or 10 years, but for that time it’ll be very good for us.’ This shows how short-term it really is, because Zuckerman is one of the supporters of fracking.

Most people in the mainstream agree that fracking will influence geopolitics. But not many people talk about the bigger changes and disagreements which will come.

While we think only about fossil fuels we are losing the opportunity to develop renewable energy to produce all the energy we need. Our industrial economies rely on the fact that we can get enough fossil fuel cheaply. When this becomes difficult – ie. when extraction begins costing too much energy or fuel prices begin to rise uncontrollably – then the economy will go into a worse crisis than the recent financial crisis. Tim Morgan (of the London money-brokering firm Tullet Prebon) said: ‘The economy, as we have known it for more than two centuries, will become impossible in the next 10 or so years, unless we find a way to reverse the rising energy costs’. It is madness to only hope that fracked fuels will be the solution. We need to work on an alternative energy future too.

It is even greater madness to ignore climate change for a few years just because fracking might give us a few more years of fossil fuel. Already people are criticising the ‘developed’ countries for breaking their promises to cut carbon emissions (and these promises were much too weak to be effective in the first place). When climate change increases, it will destroy the geopolitical landscape.

Dinyar Godrej is a New Internationalist co-editor.

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: http://newint.org/features/2013/12/01/fracking-politics/