Full Throttle Ahead: US Tips Global Power Scales with Fracking
Part 2: The Kremlin Is Alarmed
No one in Moscow can rattle off these statistics as quickly as Vladimir Milov. He was deputy energy minister after the turn of the millennium, and today he heads a small opposition party. Milov believes Gazprom is a giant with clay feet. "America is announcing the shale gas revolution, while Gazprom and Russia remain in hibernation," he says.
If liquefied natural gas from the United States lands at the ports of Rotterdam, Hamburg or Odessa in the future, it will further increase the pressure on prices. And if Moscow remains intransigent in the discussion of an Iran resolution in the UN Security Council, Washington could threaten to flood the market with natural gas.
The Kremlin is alarmed, despite Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller's dismissive characterization of the revolution as an exaggeration in the style of "American Hollywood films." Shale gas will play only a secondary role in the market, says Miller, citing the billions Western energy companies are investing in pipelines and the traditional exploration of Siberian gas fields.
But new pipelines are expensive, and it is completely unclear whether the South Stream pipeline, which is to transport Russian gas from the Black Sea to Italy, across a distance of 2,380 kilometers (1,490 miles), and will cost an estimated 16 billion to build, will ever pay off. Miller's spokesman Sergey Kupriyanov admits that the new technologies work in America's favor.
But another trend is being overlooked, says Kupriyanov. "The demand for gas will increase worldwide," he explains, "because the economies of the rapidly growing emerging countries need energy and, in the future, more automobiles and soon more ships will be operated with environmentally friendly natural gas."
It seems certain that Russia will remain an important supplier of commodities. But its political threat potential will shrink if the countries of Western Europe and Ukraine have more alternatives to Russian natural resources. Moscow will likely become the biggest political loser of the America natural resource boom. But what does it look like at other key points in the business?
No Blood for Oil
The Middle East, for example, is a dangerous region, repeatedly racked by war in the last few decades. The Americans attacked Iraq twice to secure their oil supply.
More than 20 US warships are stationed in Bahrain, including an aircraft carrier, as well as several destroyers and submarines. The US Navy's Fifth Fleet is intended to secure the Strait of Hormuz, which connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman. Some 35 percent of the global oil trade involving ships passes through the Strait.
With its efforts in the Gulf, the American military is not only protecting trade routes, but also the monarchies in the region. In return the Saudis, still the world's largest oil producer today, have ensured that OPEC pursues a moderate price policy. But the tradeoff of security against oil is costly for the Americans.
Washington pays billions for its military presence in the Middle East. And the costs are not just material. The fact that American troops were deployed to the war in Kuwait from Saudi soil was the catalyst that triggered former al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden's fight against the United States.
According to BND estimates, the Americans could soon dispense with energy shipments from the Middle East altogether. It is conceivable that the United States could then no longer have a direct interest in protecting the flow of oil out of the Gulf region, London-based energy expert Alan Riley recently wrote in the New York Times.
Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the United States will withdraw from the region in the foreseeable future. "The United States will remain dependent on international energy markets for a long time to come," says Joseph Braml of the German Council on Foreign Relations.
Besides, US interests in the Middle East are not limited to oil. They also include both containing Iran and fighting Islamist terror. Finally, protecting Israel also plays a central role in American foreign policy.
"Anyone who thinks that the Americans could withdraw from the Middle East understands neither the dynamics of the oil markets nor the geopolitical relationships," says Braml. One reason that America will maintain a presence at the Strait of Hormuz, he explains, is to be able to shut off the energy tap to the Chinese if necessary.
Still, the Europeans, in particular, could face new political challenges. "It ought to become easier for America in the future to demand more help from others in securing the energy supply," says security expert Michael O'Hanlon of the Washington-based Brookings Institution. This applies to Washington's NATO allies, he adds, and to Japan, South Korea and even India.
For Germany, this would probably not mean sending its own troops to the Gulf. But it would have to make a stronger contribution to the costs of the US mission.
According to the BND's assessment, the Chinese will be significantly on the losing end of American oil wealth. The country will become even more dependent on the Gulf region than it is now, and yet it is still not in a position to protect the transport routes on its own. This makes it vulnerable, the BND argues, and gives the United States more room for maneuver with its global political rivals. But what does all of this mean for Germany?
'Typical German Behavior'
In a study conducted last year, the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources in the northern German city of Hanover concluded that even Germany has substantial untapped natural resources beneath its soil: between 700 and 2,300 billion cubic meters of extractable shale gas, or 200 times the country's current natural gas production. "This means that shale gas from domestic reserves, if used extensively, could contribute significantly to Germany's natural gas supply," say the institute's experts. Representatives of energy companies ExxonMobil and Wintershall estimate the marketable value of this treasure at up to 1 trillion.
The Hanover study makes it seem as if Germany could immediately start drilling. It also states that environmental concerns are unfounded, because the method in question has been around for a long time, although it has only been used so far in other types of rock.
"The risks of fracking activities in the geological subsoil are low compared with potential accidents in above-ground activities," the study reads. In other words, if an oil truck tips over on the road, the risk of groundwater contamination is much greater than with fracking. But the study also points out that it would be best to stay away from regions vulnerable to earthquakes.
But the concerns about fracking prevail in politics. The government of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, a coalition of center-left Social Democrats and the Greens, imposed a moratorium of sorts, and it has even refused to issue a permit for an exploratory well requested by ExxonMobil. And in Lower Saxony, where the fracking process has already been widely used in conventional gas deposits, the mood has shifted after the recent SPD-Green Party win in state parliamentary elections.
"It's typical German behavior," says BASF board member Schwager, "to initially see only the risks with every new technology, instead of thinking about the opportunities.
Environment Minister Peter Altmaier and Economics Minister Philipp Rösler have learned their own lessons from the dispute among experts. Fracking, they state in their position papers, is technically complex and environmentally controversial. In other words: Let's not touch it with a 10-foot pole, at least until after the national parliamentary election in the fall.
REPORTED BY ALEXANDER NEUBACHER, RALF NEUKIRCH, MATTHIAS SCHEPP, THOMAS SCHULZ
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: US Tips Global Power Scales with Fracking
- Part 2: The Kremlin Is Alarmed
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