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Energy Insights: Energy News: Fracking boom frees the US from old oil alliances

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Fracking boom frees the US from old oil alliances



The US will soon overtake Saudi Arabia as the world's largest producer of crude oil, liberating its foreign policy from dependency on a handful of oil-rich Arab allies

A fracking crew at work just outside Williston, North Dakota, heart of the US fracking boom
A fracking crew at work just outside Williston, North Dakota, heart of the US fracking boom Photo: Dermot Tatlow

Fatih Birol is one of those people who run the world without the man in the street ever having heard of them. From a discreet office in Paris, he keeps an ever-sensitive finger on the world's pulse.

A few years ago, he was warning of the pressure on oil supplies from explosive economic growth in Asia. In 2007, he was among the first to spot that China's emissions of greenhouse gases were about to overtake America's - a key factor in world talks on climate change.

Last year, he made another striking prediction: he forecast the eclipse of an unchallenged energy giant. Saudi Arabia would shortly be overtaken as the world's biggest producer of crude oil by its most important client, the United States, he said.

In a world consumed with fears over financial crisis, joblessness, war in Syria, and international jihad, the academic predictions of people like Mr Birol tend to get overlooked.

Yet as chief economist of the International Energy Agency (and, like a surprising number of the world's most important men, a Turk) he is closer to the action on all those issues than many care to realise.

The belief that the world's economy, security and geopolitics are subordinate to America's need for oil is a truism so universally acknowledged that it is regurgitated on every concerned news site the web over.

Yet this is what he said in his annual outlook on the important trends of the moment: "By around 2020, the United States is projected to become the largest global oil producer," he wrote. "The result is a continued fall in US oil imports, to the extent that North America becomes a net oil exporter around 2030.

"The United States, which currently imports around 20 per cent of its total energy needs, becomes all but self-sufficient in net terms – a dramatic reversal of the trend seen in most other energy-importing countries."

Far from sending its armies round the world to secure oil, in other words, before long it will be sending marketing consultants to sell it.

A dramatic reversal indeed: it seems like only yesterday that every commentator was talking about Peak Oil, the theory that the world's biggest reserves had all been discovered and that the planet's booming population would all soon be scrapping over the dribbles that still came out of the pipelines that remained.

Now, with fracking technology revolutionising output in the United States - soon to be followed by other countries - that talk has dried up rather quicker than the pipelines ever did.

The effects on the countries concerned, particularly those belonging to the OPEC oil cartel, are just starting to be realised. The Saudis, for example, have begun to notice.

“Our country is facing continuous threat because of its almost total dependency on oil,” Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the country's most prominent businessman, wrote in an open letter to the oil minister and his own uncle, King Abdullah, in the summer, urging them to wake up to the danger. “The world is increasingly less dependent on oil from OPEC countries including the kingdom."

By the time new talks with Iran over its nuclear programme were announced in the autumn, such sensitive issues had even reached the ever-cautious Saudi press. Moreover, writers had begun to notice that the issue wasn't just economic - important though it is for Saudi Arabia's oil-dependent economy and public finances for oil sales to keep up, prices to remain stable, and the cash to keep rolling in.

It has been lost on no-one that the United States in general, and President Barack Obama in particular, is less concerned nowadays to soothe Saudi Arabia's highly-strung nerves on regional politics than it used to be. The outcome of those talks, a deal about which Saudi Arabia remains deeply nervous, was one result.

Royal spokesmen have fired off an increasingly furious series of warnings of the dangers the United States is running by making concessions to Iran, as well as by not taking the military route to regime change in Syria, the biggest threat to peace in the Middle East.

The Saudi Gazette, for one, made the linkage clear in a piece by its energy analyst, Syed Rashid Husain. "Roles are getting switched," he wrote. "Global energy geopolitics is undergoing a major metamorphosis – as manifested by recent regional political developments. After all, Washington is no more that dependent on Middle Eastern crude supplies – as it was until a few years back."

The fall-out between the United States and Saudi Arabia has been several years in the making, but it accelerated in 2011 when Mr Obama let an uprising on the streets of Cairo push President Hosni Mubarak, a longstanding ally of both countries, from office.

In the United States, this was hardly controversial, and in many ways Mr Obama could have done little else: as early as 2005, the Bush administration had been demanding democratic reform in Egypt, something that Mr Mubarak had steadfastly refused to implement, and Mr Obama had repeated a pro-reform message in his first speech in the Middle East, in Cairo itself, in June 2009.

In Riyadh, though, the decision was seen as a personal betrayal of the honour code, and a geopolitical folly, particularly when it was followed immediately by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam.

Saudi Arabia might be seen elsewhere as the global heart of political Islam, but to its royal rulers the Brotherhood is a menace.

Mr Obama is apparently undeterred. Since then, he has gone further - in the world-view of the Arab Gulf States with their historical, sectarian and ideological rivalries with Tehran - by opening up to the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani.

When Saudi Arabia refused to take up its due seat at the UN Security Council, its leaders made clear that it was at America that the snub was largely directed, citing failures over Syria, Palestine and "nuclear non-proliferation", a reference to the Israeli and Iranian nuclear programmes. It has, of course, lived happily with the Israeli nuclear deterrent for years.

In public, Saudi officials remain sanguine about its oil exports and downplay the connection of energy to America's change of posture. They prefer to portray it as a sort of global American funk.

Leo Drollas, director of the Centre for Global Energy Studies, a think-tank originally founded by the Saudis, pointed out that Saudi Arabia's own oil exports had not been affected by the growth of fracking in the US, since the type of light crude oil that process produced was replacing Nigerian and Algerian supplies, not Saudi ones.

Saudi Arabia itself was a joint investor in American oil, he said. However, he said, growth in American production had had a wider effect. "Peak oil has receded from the consciousness of the oil industry and beyond," he said.

The decline in panic over global supplies compared with a few years ago has shifted perspectives in a different way than just reducing dependence on Saudi exports.

Since sanctions were toughened against Iran, its own oil sales have fallen by a substantial million barrels per day - one principle reason for the economic crisis seen by some as having brought it to the negotiating table.

Analysts say that volume of loss to the world market could not have been sustained, because of its boost to prices, without the extra supplies fracking is bringing to the market.

Saudi Arabia has increased production to match, keeping prices stable, but new fields being developed in neighbouring Iraq and the rise in importance of gas have also made its role less vital. And now all that Iranian oil may sooner rather than later end up back on the market.

Some suggest Saudi Arabia might cut its production, hiking world prices, as a retaliatory action. But even were it to do so - and it has given no indication of it - it might itself be the worst victim. Saudi has some slack to reduce its own income from oil and keep its budget in the black, but not so much.

With America no longer standing so firmly behind its old alliances, the Arab Middle East is simultaneously excited and terrified. An Arab elite which has long encouraged its people to a frenzy of anti-Americanism is now often hysterically accusing America of withdrawing from the region, even while "the street" cheers that withdrawal on.

In America, most opinion polls suggest that for the "American street" withdrawal from a region which has seen billions of dollars spent, thousands of American lives lost and seemingly nothing but humiliation meted out in return cannot come fast enough.

But will the Middle East really be left alone? Perhaps we should leave the last word to Mr Birol. His 2013 report was out this month.

"The centre of gravity of energy demand is switching decisively to the emerging economies," he concludes. "China dominates the picture within Asia, before India takes over from 2020 as the principal engine of growth."

China has for some years been the biggest investor in Iran's oil and gas industry. But in one of his last major tours before stepping down at the turn of this year, Wen Jiabao, the previous prime minister, went on an unprecedented tour of "the other side" - America's historic Gulf allies - Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

The connection between oil and geopolitics is never weak. It's just that it sometimes changes its appearance.

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