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Fracing, Freedom to Trade, and Global Prosperity (George Mitchell’s Ultimate Contribution)

The recent death of George P. Mitchell has revived the discussion of shale gas and brought the extraordinary life of Mitchell into the limelight.

Son of poor Greek immigrants, he embodied the prototypical “rags-to-riches”. His development of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) has been his highlighted attribute and brought justified recognition for his contribution to the global energy supply.

When considering the economic benefits that shale gas production through fracking bring about, it is no wonder why Mitchell continues to win awards, such as “Houstonian of the Century,” even posthumously.

The Bigger Picture

What appears to be absent from most of Mitchell’s praise is his growing contribution to strengthening the global position of the United States. The prodigious supply of U.S. natural gas already has weakened energy-dominate regions, which include Russia and OPEC, and has created a greater potential for foreign partnerships.

Armies and weapons have always been utilized as strategic assets in regional or global positioning. Today, guaranteed access to abundant sources of energy is equivalent to large standing militaries and destructive weaponry as a process of preserving self-existence.

Unlike the threat of war and nuclear bombs, however, the surge in shale gas exploration has abundant benefits. Mitchell’s early push and innovation has allowed the U.S. to employ its energy production as a diplomatic tool, in almost the same manner as the atomic bomb has, but through much more harmonious terms.

Due to hydraulic fractionation (fracking), the U.S. has recently become the fastest growing natural gas producing area in the world–and the most important marginal source for gas. The U.S. boasts some of the cheapest natural gas production in the world, and its transport-to-market costs are low due to developed infrastructure.

Fracking could not only permit the U.S to become energy self-sufficient, but also allow the U.S. to become a major exporter of natural gas. The International Energy Agency has recognized this influx of unconventionally recovered gas and has predicted a monumental shift in global energy production through 2030.

Cheap Power as Soft Power

Increasing. global exports of shale gas in the form of liquefied natural gas to more receptive nations, including energy-starved European markets, diminishes Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. This will likely have considerable geopolitical implications in preventing Russia’s ability to exercise an “energy” weapon or to overtly influence political outcomes on the continent, a practice Russia has conducted on several occasions.

By providing European buyers with sufficient alternatives to Russian supplies, the U.S. market would thereby reduce Moscow’s political leverage. This enhances U.S. interests by strengthening Europe’s ability to resist Russian interference in European affairs and help border states in the Balkans and Eastern Europe assert greater foreign policy independence from Moscow.

U.S. coalitions with European nations are an important element to U.S. national security, including efforts to combat international terrorism and prevent humanitarian crises.

Recently, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal revealed his concern that the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy is increasingly vulnerable to rising U.S. energy production and noted that the North American, shale boom will reduce demand from members of the OPEC. In the 1970’s the cartel imposed two separate oil embargos against the U.S. and its various allies that ultimately rattled an energy-dependent economy. By reducing OPEC’s power on the market, shale boom levels the playing field and forces OPEC to play by all-encompassing rules, rather than by its own self-interests.

China’s economy is a key driver of the increase in energy consumption, but gas only meets about 5 percent of China’s current energy needs. However, some experts predict China will transition to a gas-dominated energy system, especially in more urban locations. Natural gas is seen as a solution to cut carbon emissions and China is eager to lower the pollution that chokes some of its most populous cities. Consumption of natural gas is expected to reach 55 to 60 billions of cubic feet per day in China, close to what the U.S. consumes today.

With China’s proximity to Russia, the launch of a Sino-Russian relationship based on energy dependence seems likely to evolve.. Although this partnership would not be directly against U.S. interests, it would make a possible U.S.-China energy cooperation in the future more unlikely.

Also, stronger relationships between China and Russia could have overall effects on the balance of power in Northeast Asia in a way that could disadvantage U.S. allies in that region. If U.S. shale gas became economically viable to the growing Chinese economy, an energy relationship intertwined with national security and economic implications is possible.

While many countries continue to explore and discover potential sources of unconventional gas and oil, most lag behind the U.S. in their extraction capabilities, transportation infrastructure, and proven reserves. Another factor that denies access to shale resources is the unconfirmed notion of environmental degradation.

Although science has failed to provide reasonable evidence linking fracking and rampant pollution, countries such as Bulgaria, France, Germany, and Ireland have banned all fracking operations. These countries have consequently put the carriage before the horse and prevented their ability to exploit resources that will allow for greater distribution of power.

Texas, on the other hand, understands the role shale gas plays on a global market, and allows the U.S. to better position itself in an energy-reliant market by quelling fears and minimizing governmental interference in the form of imperious regulation.

Conclusion

It wasn’t long ago that the idea of energy independence was considered an unattainable goal. What George Mitchell has done shrinks the gap between achievable and impossible, and makes U.S. energy security objectives more reachable.

If trends in energy exploration and extraction continue, the U.S. will have the option of being less involved in volatile and dangerous areas such as the Middle East. Although natural gas, which is more abundant in America, cannot entirely replace petroleum, its inclusion in global open markets will allow the U.S. to better position itself, strategically and geopolitically.

George Mitchell has laid the foundation, now U.S. policymakers need to have the courage to resist environmental groups and allow states to implore the necessary practices to sensibly utilize their own resources without the restrictive hand of the federal government.

1 comment

1 John W. Garrett { 08.19.13 at 5:21 pm }

While I hate to interject a note of dissent— from the perspective of an investor, you did not want to be a long-term shareholder of Mitchell Energy. The long-term public shareholders did not enjoy the benefits of George Mitchell’s enthusiasms. They were, in fact, a source of free capital.

This is not all that unusual. Buyers of IPOs and public shareholders in companies run by “visionaries” frequently suffer buyer’s remorse. On the whole, they tend to be lousy investments.

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