If fracking is really to produce the sort of oil independence that the USA could only have dreamed of just a few short years ago, we must begin to prepare for the possibility of a new superpower isolationism and the manifold effects that withdrawal may bring.
Recent developments in energy technology will have a profound effect on Western reliance on imported petroleum. This in turn will likely reduce incentives for a weary America to project its power on oil-rich trouble spots in the Middle East. Planners must be ready.
Fracking is set to change the world. That much is clear. To what extent, though, and how, is uncertain. The most violent debates centre around its effects on the environment. But what about the global security environment? Many worry the process itself will cause dangerous earthquakes and there are too many unknowns. Equally, this swiftly developing technology could produce seismic shifts in the way horizon scanners and strategists approach the landscape of international security in the coming decades; it will also bring uncertainty about the motives of key international actors on the world stage. As is often the case, the questions hang on America’s role in world affairs, and what we can expect its military to do or not do. Fracking may be removing some of the half-certainties we had in this regard.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing to give it its full name, is the use of water to crack open pockets of hydrocarbons in previously unreachable places below the ground. It has been used up until now to extract natural gas in enormous quantities, but the last two years have seen spectacular developments in America’s ability to extract ‘tight oil’ from its shale reserves across the country.
The practice is highly controversial ecologically; those against cite massive water consumption and pollution, induction of tremors, and the disincentives it provides to curb fossil fuel consumption as existential dangers to the planet.
Regardless, the industry is moving so quickly that some last month predicted energy independence for the USA by 2035. Though others doubt the totality of these claims, even cautious forecasts see American imports of oil and petroleum products from the Middle East plummeting by the middle of this century.
We could be witnessing momentous changes in the way the world’s superpower approaches its relationship with the region that has shaped its military power projection – and arguably the entire global security landscape – in the latter decades of last century and the first decades of this.
The debate over the role played by oil in America and Britain’s decision to invade Iraq has played out tirelessly (and rather tiresomely) since before a single soldier was on the ground in 2003. Although only the most credulous observer could have believed Donald Rumsfeld’s avowal that “the Iraq war has nothing to do with oil, literally nothing to do with oil” was said in whole-hearted good faith, the issue remains obscure. What matters here is the question whether America would have been so keen to invade if those such as VP Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force had not had to worry about securing oil supplies in far flung corners of the world.
Operation Desert Storm was fought explicitly to protect the oil fields of Kuwait and neighbouring Saudi Arabia from falling into hostile hands. That America and its allies have waged war, invaded countries, propped up dictators, toppled dictators, deposed democratically elected leaders, spent billions fortifying whole peninsulas with garrisons, air and naval bases explicitly to secure its oil supply should be news to no one. Even landlocked, oil-bereft Afghanistan’s 1979 invasion by Soviet forces was seen by strategists in US as a geostrategic play for priceless access to the Persian Gulf, furthering incentives to fund the mujahedin resistance.
The implications of these interventions have rippled out across history. Just before Suez came Operation Boot (which is what we called it this side of the Atlantic) / Operation Ajax (the American’s designation) – a covert mission to overthrow Prime Minister Mossadeq of Iran who had just announced the nationalisation of the Anglo Iranian Oil Company. The MI6 / CIA action reimposed the Shah upon Iranians, whom he tortured and murdered in their thousands, likely precipitating the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia from 1990 to 2003 under Operation Southern Watch was one of the founding grievances of al-Qaeda, and America’s effective guarantee of the entire Arabian Peninsula against any – and especially Iranian – threat continues to shape the balance of power in the region. If Washington starts to feel that, with ample oil and gas on its own shores, the cost and ill-will bred by its involvement in MENA is no longer outweighed by the benefits, a total disengagement from the area would be welcomed by many. But the permutations of that isolationism are not easy to envisage, what with India, moreover China, becoming ever more thirsty for energy imports.
The possible effects of the fracking revolution are not limited to the USA’s involvement in world affairs, of course. The enormous bilateral trade in oil and arms between Britain and the Saudis is testament enough to that.
Moreover, the unique value of oil, to producers and developed consumers has contributed to the outbreak and prolongation of many recent conflicts. Mary Kaldor, Yahia Said, and one of the worlds foremost experts on the topic, Terry Lynn Karl give a superb rundown of the ways they see oil shaping conflict in the introduction to their excellent edited volume “Oil Wars.” In it they describe the multitude of linkages between crude exports and conflict. In their thesis, ‘new oil wars’ have been produced by the calamitous effects of reliance upon oil exports on economy, state institutions and governance; hollowed out petro-states blighted by patrimony and factionalism that descend into civil conflict. They regard Iraq between 2003 and 2009 as paradigmatic of an ‘old oil war’ – military intervention to secure future access and supply to foreign oil fields – and the state collapse of a ‘new oil war’.
British Petroleum, France’s Total Elf Fina and the Dutch Shell turn up in the histories of many civil wars in the post cold war epoch, from Casanare in Colombia to Cabinda in Angola. The risks to personnel, financial investments and reputation are enormous when engaging in active conflict zone, and can only be taken when value of possible rewards are great and range of viable alternatives small.
Yesterday, the suspension on fracking in the UK was lifted. Perhaps the UK is never likely to see an ‘unconventional oil’ bonanza on the scale of the US. However, we must now envisage increasing domestic oil production along with imports from countries such as Canada – with whom we share warm relations– diminishing the strategic importance of areas historically far more troublesome for Britain.
Yesterday also saw the announcement of the £2.2m compensation package awarded to Libyan dissident Sami al-Saadi for the alleged complicity of MI6 agents in the kidnapping of him, his wife and young children from Hong Kong and his subsequent torture by Gaddafi’s security forces in Tripoli. It would appear that this episode was another in the unedifying series that many have linked to Tony Blair’s ‘deals in the desert’ with Libya in 2004 and 2007. The other most notorious being the 2009 return of convicted terrorist Abdelbassett al-Megrahi, one of those responsible for the atrocity at Lockerbie in 1988. The accords on sharing military and security intelligence (though not necessarily prisoner release) between London and Tripoli were not unrelated to a new found willingness of Gaddafi to allow BP back into business in Libya where it had seen all assets appropriated in 1974.
The pressure of the national interest of securing affordable energy supplies – on which the functioning of the economy and all services rely – exerts a heavy force on leaders and shapes developed country’s strategic stance towards the rest of the world. If fracking is really to produce the sort of oil independence that the USA could only have dreamed of just a few short years ago, we must begin to prepare for the possibility of a new superpower isolationism and the manifold effects that may withdrawal bring. An Iran emboldened in the Arabian peninsula and new gatekeeper of the Persian Gulf in China may be the first of the new realities we would need to make sense of, and perhaps begin worrying about.
Photo Credit: Marcellus Protest