Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Will the Coming Energy Revolutions Breed Political Revolutions?

Most in the United States view the possibility of energy independence in the near future with unmitigated joy. An article by Benjamin Alter and Edward Fishman in the New York Times reminds us that all actions produce reactions, and that the withdrawal of the US from the world energy market as a consumer will have repercussions. Their piece is aptly titled The Dark Side of Energy Independence.

The authors provide this projection:

"A wave of new technologies has made it possible to extract oil and gas from shale rock formations, and the results have been astonishing. By some estimates, the United States is on track to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer as early as 2017, start exporting more oil and gas than it imports by 2025, and achieve full energy self-sufficiency by 2030."

Based on that assumption, they make this prediction:

"....America’s oil and gas bonanza will drive down global energy prices, undercutting the foundations of petrostates everywhere. According to Francisco Blanch, the head of commodities research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, oil could fall to just $50 a barrel within the next two years, which could unleash unrest in regions crucial to American interests. Far from releasing the United States from the burden of global leadership, this process would force Washington to assume an even greater international role than it currently plays."

A number of countries are highly dependent on oil income and have created societies and economies that assume the price of oil and gas will be kept high.

"Consider Bahrain, which earns 70 percent of its revenues through petroleum production and refining. The small island monarchy has undergone deeply destabilizing protests since the start of the Arab Spring. A drop in global energy prices would hurt the already weak government, breathing new life into opposition forces. A populist revolution in Bahrain could empower the country’s long-repressed Shiite majority, who already resent Washington’s support for the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family. A new regime in Bahrain might even seek to expel the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, complicating America’s efforts to protect international shipping lanes, fight piracy and check Iran’s regional ambitions."

"Even more alarming is the prospect of instability in Saudi Arabia. In 2011, the Saudi royal family was able to head off an Arab Spring-style revolution because of its enormous oil revenues, doling out $130 billion in benefits to pacify the country’s younger and poorer inhabitants. Should lower oil prices make such patronage impossible in the future, the kingdom could face domestic unrest — making the country a far less reliable partner for America in fighting terrorism and countering Iran. Moreover, if Saudi Arabia has less of its own money to spend on regional security, Washington will have to make up for the shortfall."

A dramatic fall in the price of oil would have repercussions outside the Middle East with the possibility of political fallout in places such as Russia, Venezuela, and in select nations of Africa and Central Asia.

The authors wish to disabuse everyone of the notion that life will become simpler once they become independent of the international oil market.

"Americans should cheer the energy revolution. It will do wonders for the American economy, and the democratic politics it could encourage in the Middle East and Russia may ultimately serve American interests. But in the meantime, Washington should expect a world far less stable than the one it is used to — and, in turn, prepare to adopt an even more outward-looking foreign policy."

Alter and Fishman consider the issues that might arise from the US attaining energy independence. Obviously, there are other countries out there who would also like to reduce or eliminate the need for imported fossil fuels. Is there a means by which other countries could follow the projected path of the US? That is a topic covered by an interesting article by Charles C. Mann in The Atlantic: What If We Never Run Out of Oil?

Mann acknowledges the seeming inexhaustibility of the various oil sources that have been discovered. He also recognizes that other nations are likely to have the opportunity to take advantage of new technologies and new sources such as fracking for shale oil and gas. However, he is most interested in the possibility of exploiting yet another source of natural gas: methane hydrate, undersea deposits of methane "frozen" into a water lattice at high pressures and low temperatures.

"In the 1970s, geologists discovered crystalline natural gas—methane hydrate, in the jargon—beneath the seafloor. Stored mostly in broad, shallow layers on continental margins, methane hydrate exists in immense quantities; by some estimates, it is twice as abundant as all other fossil fuels combined."

Estimates of quantities are uncertain. At least as interesting as its perceived abundance is its ubiquity. It seems to be available to just about any country that has coastal access to relatively deep seawater.

Life flourishes in the seas near land. When living matter dies it sinks to the bottom and forms sediment. Microorganisms exist that feed off this accumulating residue.

"In a process familiar to anyone who has seen bubbles coming to the surface of a pond, the microbes emit methane gas as they eat and grow. This undersea methane bubbles up too, but it quickly encounters the extremely cold water in the pores of the sediment. Under the high pressure of these cold depths, water and methane react to each other: water molecules link into crystalline lattices that trap methane molecules. A cubic foot of these lattices can contain as much as 180 cubic feet of methane gas."

"....water pressure and temperature keep them stable at depths below about 1,000 feet. Scientists on the surface refer to them by many names: methane hydrate, of course, but also methane clathrate, gas hydrate, hydromethane, and methane ice."

There are a number of technically-advanced countries that would like to have access to their own large sources of natural gas rather than be required to import most of their fossil fuels. Mann emphasizes the large and long-term investment that Japan has made in attempts to mine this prevalent nearby source. The Asian nations of China, India, Korea, and Taiwan have their own research efforts. A number of Western nations are also involved, including the US and Canada.

Mann provides a view of the extent of the Japanese effort by describing the activities of the research ship Chikyu (Earth).

"....a $540 million Japanese deep-sea drilling vessel that looks like a billionaire’s yacht with a 30-story oil derrick screwed into its back. The Chikyu, a floating barrage of superlatives, is the biggest, glitziest, most sophisticated research vessel ever constructed, and surely the only one with a landing pad for a 30-person helicopter. The central derrick houses an enormous floating drill with a six-mile "string" that has let the Chikyu delve deeper beneath the ocean floor than any other ship."

"The Chikyu, which first set out in 2005, was initially intended to probe earthquake-generating zones in the planet’s mantle, a subject of obvious interest to seismically unstable Japan. Its present undertaking was, if possible, of even greater importance: trying to develop an energy source that could free not just Japan but much of the world from the dependence on Middle Eastern oil that has bedeviled politicians since Churchill’s day."

"Japan, which has spent about $700 million on methane-hydrate R&D over the past decade, has the world’s biggest hydrate-research program....In mid-March, Japan’s Chikyu test ended a week early, after sand got in the well mechanism. But by then the researchers had already retrieved about 4 million cubic feet of natural gas from methane hydrate, at double the expected rate. Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry is eager to create a domestic oil industry; at present, the nation produces just one one-thousandth of its own needs. Perhaps overoptimistically, the ministry set 2018 as a target date for commercializing methane hydrate."

If the notion of an abundant new energy source becoming available in about ten years sounds farfetched, Mann reminds us of the history associated with fracking.

"Twelve years ago, a magazine asked me to write an article about energy supplies. While researching, I met petroleum geologists and engineers who told me about a still-experimental technique called hydraulic fracturing. Intrigued, I asked several prominent energy pundits about it. All scoffed at the notion that it would pay off."

If Alter and Fishman were concerned about the effects of the US attaining energy independence, what would they anticipate happening if countries like Japan, Korea, China, and India were able to one day soon greatly diminish their need for imported fossil fuels?

If methane hydrate becomes a commercial source of natural gas, Mann anticipates numerous international disputes and widespread turmoil.

"A methane-hydrate boom could lead to a southwest-to-northeast arc of instability stretching from Venezuela to Nigeria to Saudi Arabia to Kazakhstan to Siberia. It seems fair to say that if autocrats in these places were toppled, most Americans would not mourn. But it seems equally fair to say that they would not necessarily be enthusiastic about their replacements."

"Augmenting the instability would be methane hydrate itself, much of which is inconveniently located in areas of disputed sovereignty....Methane-hydrate deposits run like crystalline bands through maritime flash points: the Arctic, and waters off West Africa and Southeast Asia."

It is both fascinating and frightening to think that such large changes can occur over the span of a decade.

Hang on, we are about to experience the curse of living in "interesting times."

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