Full Throttle Ahead: US Tips Global Power Scales with Fracking

By SPIEGEL Staff

Photo Gallery: Natural Gas Boom Redistributes Global Power Photos
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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.

If that happened, Russia's attempt to influence the world market price through a natural gas group similar to OPEC would also be off the table once and for all. Last July, Russia invited the world's large gas exporters to discuss improved cooperation, but to no avail. If the United States exports a portion of its enormous resources, price and production agreements will likely become impossible once and for all.

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.

The critics base their arguments in part on a position taken by the Federal Environment Agency, which is of course particularly sensitive when it comes to environmental matters. According to the agency's position, fracking should only be allowed under the strictest of conditions, which in turn displeases proponents.

"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

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1. Approach yes! But with great caution!
moerschen 02/01/2013
"Washington's discretionary power in foreign and security policy will increase substantially as a result of the country's new energy riches" A very true statement, but is our power in Foreign and Security policy, as important as our lives? Fracking has been, and will continue to be, an extreme danger to our water supply. If the chemicals used in fracking get into our underground water supply, then the rate of deaths will rise significantly in our population. Water around the World is being rapidly consumed by big businesses, and a forecasted rise of World Population to 8 billion by 2020 warns of danger, and more and more water is being poluted everyday. That causes me to wonder if we should not increase our Power in Foreign and Security policy by searching for more water supplies instead of Natural Gas and Oil. We can find other, more safe, clean, sources for energy, but what can we find for safe water? I can't help but wonder, if this Fracking craze is not started by Big Banks and Big Business for profit, regardless of the effect on the health of the World. Since money has outpaced concerns over health in the past years, this is something that I feel must be approached cautiously, and with far more study. This article sort of urges us all to hurry and start fracking immediately, but I can only disagree with that concept.
2. Moose hunting?
carterwood 02/01/2013
I've spent a lot of time in Williston, and the idea that moose hunting is one of the few entertainments is preposterous. It's just not true. For one thing, it's hard to get a license. Maybe deer hunting... Anyway, when a reporter gets a basic, introductory fact wrong, it makes me suspect the whole story.
3. Brakes on Full Throttle to Fracking in the US
jjbrownauthor 02/01/2013
Not full throttle ahead with fracking in the US, as more and more scientific and medical evidence of serious harm to people, animals, and environment and economics come to the surface. In NY the fracking debate is at a fever pitch, and fracking is currently banned not only in NY state but by many towns and cities here. The economic benefits of fracking may have been grossly overstated, the risks deeply under- represented. As a geneticist, I and many colleages in the US are learning of risks of radiation contamination, carcinogenic toxic spills, methane and arsenic poisoning of drinking water. As more facts come to light in the US, europe can learn from our unfortunate mistakes early in fracking development.
4.
erikSF99 02/02/2013
---Quote (Originally by sysop)--- The United States is sitting on massive natural gas and oil reserves that have the potential to shift the geopolitical balance in its favor. Worries are increasing in Russia and the Arab states of waning influence and falling market prices. http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/new-gas-extraction-methods-alter-global-balance-of-power-a-880546.html ---End Quote--- Did the U.S. State Dept write this for you? You've gone completely over to garbage propaganda. Fracking has already been proven as a complete fraud. Simply: Each individual 'well' has very little oil and gas and is over 50% depleted within a year. Soon it will take more energy to get a barrel out than the barrel contains. End of story. End of drilling. Not to mention the destruction of the environment. North Dakota is being ruined socially.
5. To set the record straight.
powermeerkat 02/02/2013
If anybody shoulf wory about shrinking water supplies it's not US, but major Middle-East oil producers downstream from Turkey. P.S. How come not a single tree-hugger mentions NUCLEAR energy, with heavily polluted China and India massively investing in as we speak? [Not that U.S. doesn't, belatedly]
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