Sometimes a quite simple new discovery or technological breakthrough changes everything, making nonsense of yesterday’s apparently safe assumptions and expert projections.
The classic and often quoted example used to be the 19th-century forecast that all London’ streets would inevitably become blocked with horse manure due to soaring growth in horse-drawn traffic. Then along came the motorcar, and that was the end of that scare.
A similar discontinuity could be about to hit the world of energy-supply forecasting. For some years now energy experts have been warning about the growing demand for natural gas to replace coal, especially for power generation.
In Europe’s case — respected authorities have been insisting — this must surely mean that heavy dependence on Russian gas will increase, raising all sorts of security fears and boosting the search for alternative pipeline supplies from Central Asia and the Middle East to avoid the Russian menace. And all this would be against a background of global supply of oil and gas “peaking” and the world actually running out of both commodities.
But suddenly the picture is radically changing. Welcome to hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” — a long-known but recently much-improved technique for extracting gas from shale far below the Earth’s surface. This is not some future wizardry but a current development of huge significance. It is providing the world with gas at amazing speed. By deploying the new technology, gas producers in the United States are heading quickly toward producing all the gas that nation needs, with imports plummeting. Vast new facilities, like the Sabine Pass terminal in Texas, that were built to suck in shiploads of frozen gas (LNG) are virtually idle.
Since the U.S. is the world’s biggest gas consumer, this means that more gas is becoming available for Europe and the rest of the world. Prices have crashed, gas stocks are at record highs — even allowing for the global recession — and cargoes of LNG on the high seas are looking for customers.
Already, around 15 percent of total American gas need is being met via this new and so-called unconventional source. This is expected to rise to more than 60 percent by 2020, which would amount to a quarter of the entire world’s gas consumption. This will make the U.S. the world’s largest gas producer, outstripping Russia and the Middle East, and giving America enough gas to last for 100 years.
There is even talk of America using its huge gas terminals to freeze and export gas to the rest of the world — a true reversal of roles.
The story does not stop there. All over Western Europe, similar gas deposits have been identified, although on a smaller scale. With new fracking technology they become accessible at a cost that makes economic sense, and they are environmentally unobtrusive. Substantial deposits on a commercial scale have been located — and in some cases are already being developed — in Poland, Austria, Hungary, Sweden, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.
The process lags behind the American gas boom but the implications are clear. In a few years, it will be the end of Europe’s gas worries and goodbye to the threat of a Russian monopoly on Western Europe’s gas supply.
All the plans for constructing new, Russia-avoiding pipelines to bring gas from Central Asia and the Caspian region to Europe, mostly through Turkey, will look far less urgent or even unnecessary. And the mighty Russian supplier Gazprom will be anxiously searching for new customers and trying to cut its costs. The so-called “new great game,” which has involved trying to escape the Russian stranglehold on Western energy supplies, will have been turned on its head. Asian customers of Russian gas — including Japan, which relies on natural gas for well over half its daily electricity supply — will find eager salesmen pressing them to take more gas and enter into long-term contracts.
Meanwhile, Iraq is on the threshold of huge new gas expansion and Iran is also sitting on enormous gas deposits. Also, China is finding new gas sources and seeking advice from the Americans on new technology with which to exploit them.
Moving the Chinese economy from coal to gas will have dramatic effects in curbing carbon emissions growth, as it has done in the U.K. in recent years and as it is doing elsewhere.
This, of course, is only one step forward toward the energy transition to a greener world. It could well be that in 10 to 15 years the gas age will be over and alternative low-carbon power (from nuclear and renewable sources) will have finally taken over.
But in the meantime gas will reign, and it will be cheap and very plentiful.
In a world still sore and licking its wounds from financial chaos and recession, this is a cheering prospect. It shifts geopolitics in new directions — which, as usual, too many experts failed to foresee.
David Howell is a former British Cabinet minister and former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. He is now a member of the House of Lords.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.