Shale Gas: A Geopolitical Game Changer


There has been much debate recently on the merits of the exploitation of shale gas in the U.S., and indeed worldwide, but most opinions voiced have missed the broader, more important element of the debate: the implications of shale gas development on geopolitical power. Though there are valid environmental concerns involved with shale, as highlighted by fellow PolicyMic pundit Johann Scheidt in his recent piece, as well as large economic benefits to the American economy, described by pundit Rebecca Leber, the geopolitical angle cannot be ignored.

So what do I mean by implications for geopolitical power? Energy, and which countries control it, is a huge part of international relations. Take any story from the headlines today describing a dispute between nations and beneath the surface lies an issue relating to securing energy supplies. For example, the recent tensions between China and its neighbors (the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia) over control of seemingly useless islands in the South China Sea is not about territorial integrity, as the Chinese claim, but about the large amount of oil and gas that lies beneath. 

How does shale gas figure into geopolitical power? Natural gas is becoming a major fuel source for the future. It is cheap, abundant, and relatively clean (at least compared to burning oil or coal). The nations with the largest amounts of natural gas include Iran, Russia, and some smaller Gulf nations like Qatar; meanwhile, the consuming nations are mainly European countries, Japan, and increasingly China and America. 

As the U.S. sought to increase its use of natural gas in recent years for environmental reasons, it also prepared to become a net importer of gas by building LNG import terminals (LNG is just natural gas liquefied so it can be shipped in tankers). Natural gas can also be transported in its gaseous form via pipeline, but this is only feasible for certain routes that do not require traversing large ocean distances, such as from Russia or the Middle East to Europe.)

Now that shale gas is being exploited at an ever-rising level, not only will the U.S. not become an importer of LNG as was once projected, but it has the potential to become a major exporter. This development could enhance American geopolitical power in the not-so-distant future, as control of energy supplies brings enormous clout in international relations. 

The Russians have successfully exploited their monopoly on supplying natural gas to Europe to extract policy concessions, whether they be on NATO issues or human rights. Just look at their behavior in 2006 and 2009, when in a dispute with Ukraine, they literally cut the gas flow. Unfortunately for the rest of Europe, most of its gas supplies from Russia run through Ukrainian pipelines and the result was a continental disruption of energy supplies in the midst of a harsh winter. 

The Russians had hoped to hook the United States on its gas supplies as well, but thanks to shale gas this will not be the case; indeed in some policy circles shale gas has been dubbed a "game changer" in regards to the international balance of power. If the U.S. can continue to increase its exploitation of shale gas, not only can it protect itself from Russian malevolence but also safeguard its European allies by offering a viable alternative to Russian gas supplies.

There are legitimate environmental concerns with hydraulic fracturing, as there always are with any new technology, but these will be overcome. By stamping out shale gas development now, the U.S. risks undermining its geopolitical position in the future. Also, shale gas is not unique to the U.S. Nations around the world have discovered reserves and are preparing to develop them regardless of American action. It is better that the U.S. be at the forefront of its development and set the international standards for safety and environmental protection than to watch nations with no concern for environmental responsibility lead the charge.

Photo Credit: karathepirate