Fracking may change U.S. foreign policy for good

August 29, 2013

By Rob Cox and Christopher Swann
The authors are Reuters Breakingviews columnists. The opinions expressed are their own.

 

Fracking may be changing U.S. foreign policy. The abundant supply of hydrocarbons made accessible by hydraulic fracturing has nudged the United States the closest it’s been to energy independence in a generation and also creates a buffer for the global oil price. While all of this is relatively recent, the shift may give Uncle Sam new latitude in handling knotty affairs in Syria and throughout the Middle East.

Since its widespread introduction in the United States half a decade ago, the technology that allows drillers to extract gas and oil from shale deposits using water pressure has transformed the energy landscape. Domestic oil production has soared 43 percent to 7.3 million barrels a day. Combined with increasing fuel efficiency, net crude imports have plunged from 11 million barrels a day to just 6.5 million.

That’s expected to fall further as homegrown output grows. While most of America’s former top clients have suffered, members of OPEC – which is dominated by Middle Eastern players and also includes geopolitical rivals like Venezuela – have seen their exports to the United States tumble by a third. U.S. purchases from Persian Gulf countries are down 14 percent to just 2.1 million barrels a day.

Of course, massive producers like Saudi Arabia can still sway the world oil price. But the extra 2.2 million barrels a day America has added to global supply since 2008 means that crises in the volatile Arab world are less likely to send prices into the stratosphere. Production in Libya, for example, plummeted in 2011 without causing a huge price spike.

None of this means the United States can afford to turn its back on the world’s de facto oil belt, a region that currently includes a Syrian civil war and the makings of one in Egypt. But it may make it easier to distinguish economic from humanitarian interests in the region. American foreign policy and intervention has often, perhaps deliberately, muddled the two.

Fracking isn’t cost-free. Its long-term environmental and geological effects won’t be clear for years. But by potentially affording the United States an opportunity to adopt a new approach to the Middle East – including avoiding expensive oil-driven interventions and support for morally questionable strongmen or unpredictable rebels – fracking may bring one big benefit that its critics have yet to consider.

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