MEXICO CITY – For the past 40 years, U.S. presidents have launched distant wars, allied with autocratic sheikhs and dispatched naval fleets to protect sea lanes, all for the imperative of keeping foreign oil spigots flowing.
That imperative has now subsided. Rather suddenly, the center of gravity of global energy production has swung toward the Americas as shale oil and gas fields in North Dakota and Texas hum with activity. America is moving to the fore as the world’s largest producer of petroleum and natural gas.
That change will reorder the globe in ways large and small.
U.S. experts say it will prolong the United States’ position as the predominant global superpower. Arab nations that shook the world with the 1973 oil embargo almost certainly will be weakened. Russia will find its power ebb as European nations find alternate suppliers for natural gas. New energy technologies will reorder the scales of global winners and losers.
“There are not many times in history where you can see the balance of power shift,” said David L. Goldwyn, founder of Goldwyn Global Strategies, an energy intelligence consultancy in Washington. “We are going to see that.”
Coinciding with America’s shale-oil boom, Goldwyn said, are cutting-edge technologies that allow new parts of the globe to tap into unconventional energy resources, including deep offshore natural-gas beds. Places such as Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, Mozambique in Africa and Colombia in South America hold promise with energy reserves.
“We’re really seeing the small-‘d’ democratization of access to energy in more countries and more places,” Goldwyn said.
There are skeptics, of course, whose doubts range from distrust of the geological forecasts to analysts who say an environmental disaster could derail the shale oil and gas boom, just as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan sapped global enthusiasm for nuclear energy.
“The implications of the U.S. shale revolution are so great for its economy and security that you don’t want to kill it with stupidity,” said Robert A. Manning, an energy expert at the Atlantic Council, a public policy think tank on trans-Atlantic issues. He advocates more federal regulation on the process of extracting energy from hydraulically fractured shale formations, a process known as “fracking,” to ensure that environmental or other setbacks do not occur.
“If we find out that it’s causing earthquakes, or something else bad happens, you want to prevent that stuff,” he said.
Even doubters, however, are beginning to think the fracking boom may have long-range implications.
Chief among them is the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the energy cartel that for four decades was the arbiter of world energy supplies and prices. Just this month, OPEC reversed its previous view of the “marginal” nature of the U.S. fracking boom, acknowledging that energy supplies created by new technologies could cut sharply into the cartel’s market.
Perhaps what is most alarming to some is that the shale revolution is likely to perpetuate U.S. dominance, not just in geopolitics but in the energy industry itself. While many countries also have massive shale reserves – China is the most notable, but Algeria, Argentina and Mexico are others – none is thought likely to be able to take advantage of those deposits easily, certainly not with the explosive growth seen in the United States.
Many factors give the United States a head start in exploiting energy locked in shale, including its access to cutting-edge technology and risk capital, clear private resource ownership and huge numbers of drilling rigs, most of them capable of the difficult horizontal drilling required in fracking.
“I’m very skeptical about the ability of any other country to replicate the drilling intensity” of the United States, said Leonardo Maugeri, a former executive at the world’s sixth largest oil company, Italy-based Eni, who is at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Companies in the United States own nearly 60 percent of all active drilling rigs in the world, Maugeri said, a key condition for the continuous drilling needed for fracking.
“Texas is the most drilled state in the world,” Maugeri said. “To give you an order of magnitude, the number of wells drilled in Texas compared to Saudi Arabia is 1,000 to one.”
The ability of the United States to dominate the extraction of shale deposits at home raises another question, troubling to some: Will the United States become less interested in the global military role it plays now?