The Geopolitics of Shale

By Robert Kaplan

According to the elite newspapers and journals of opinion, the future of foreign affairs mainly rests on ideas: the moral impetus for humanitarian intervention, the various theories governing exchange rates and debt rebalancing necessary to fix Europe, the rise of cosmopolitanism alongside the stubborn vibrancy of nationalism in East Asia and so on. In other words, the world of the future can be engineered and defined based on doctoral theses. And to a certain extent this may be true. As the 20th century showed us, ideologies -- whether communism, fascism or humanism -- matter and matter greatly.

But there is another truth: The reality of large, impersonal forces like geography and the environment that also help to determine the future of human events. Africa has historically been poor largely because of few good natural harbors and few navigable rivers from the interior to the coast. Russia is paranoid because its land mass is exposed to invasion with few natural barriers. The Persian Gulf sheikhdoms are fabulously wealthy not because of ideas but because of large energy deposits underground. You get the point. Intellectuals concentrate on what they can change, but we are helpless to change much of what happens.

Enter shale, a sedimentary rock within which natural gas can be trapped. Shale gas constitutes a new source of extractable energy for the post-industrial world. Countries that have considerable shale deposits will be better placed in the 21st century competition between states, and those without such deposits will be worse off. Ideas will matter little in this regard.

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Stratfor, as it happens, has studied the issue in depth. Herein is my own analysis, influenced in part by Stratfor's research.

So let's look at who has shale and how that may change geopolitics. For the future will be heavily influenced by what lies underground.

The United States, it turns out, has vast deposits of shale gas: in Texas, Louisiana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and elsewhere. America, regardless of many of the political choices it makes, is poised to be an energy giant of the 21st century. In particular, the Gulf Coast, centered on Texas and Louisiana, has embarked upon a shale gas and tight oil boom. That development will make the Caribbean an economic focal point of the Western Hemisphere, encouraged further by the 2014 widening of the Panama Canal. At the same time, cooperation between Texas and adjacent Mexico will intensify, as Mexico increasingly becomes a market for shale gas, with its own exploited shale basins near its northern border.

This is, in part, troubling news for Russia. Russia is currently the energy giant of Europe, exporting natural gas westward in great quantities, providing Moscow with political leverage all over Central and particularly Eastern Europe. However, Russia's reserves are often in parts of Siberia that are hard and expensive to exploit -- though Russia's extraction technology, once old, has been considerably modernized. And Russia for the moment may face relatively little competition in Europe. But what if in the future the United States were able to export shale gas to Europe at a competitive price?

The United States still has few capabilities to export shale gas to Europe. It would have to build new liquefaction facilities to do that; in other words, it would have to erect plants on the Gulf of Mexico that convert the gas into liquid so that it could be transported by ship across the Atlantic, where more liquefaction facilities there would reconvert it back into gas. This is doable with capital investment, expertise and favorable legislation. Countries that build such facilities will have more energy options, to export or import, whatever the case may be. So imagine a future in which the United States exports liquefied shale gas to Europe, reducing the dependence that European countries have on Russian energy. The geopolitics of Europe could shift somewhat. Natural gas might become less of a political tool for Russia and more of a purely economic one (though even such a not-so-subtle shift would require significant exports of shale gas from North America to Europe).

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This analysis was originally published on Stratfor. Republished with permission.

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