Fracking Ferment and Malthusian Myths
by Gary Jason | Posted December 16, 2014
The revolution in American oil and natural gas production brought about by fracking continues to roar. Recently, the price of oil dropped to about $65 per barrel, and natural gas is still hovering around record low prices. In fact, as an article in Bloomberg suggests, it is entirely possible that oil may sink to $40 in the near future.
All of this was unthinkable before the last couple of years, but thanks to the miracle of fracking, it is becoming reality. It is Schumpeterian creative destruction with a vengeance. But as the theory of creative destruction emphasizes, revolutionary innovations typically bring deep disruptions in their wakes. And as a flood of recent reports illustrate, fracking is indeed a disruptive revolution.
On one side are the thieves that want to cut back on production to drive the world price for oil back to its recent high levels.
Let’s start at the level of geopolitics. With barely controlled glee I note a recent Wall Street Journal report that our fracking energy renaissance is fracturing OPEC. You remember OPEC, the cartel that drove our economy to the wall with the “oil shock” of the 1970s. As oil prices continue to fall, a split has developed among OPEC states.
On one side are the thieves that want to cut back on production to drive the world price for oil back to its recent high levels. Venezuela is the leader of this fraction, and for good reason. Its particular brand of socialism has devastated its economy (as socialism is wont to do), and it has been living off its oil imports. Well, it can’t now, and as the aforementioned Bloomberg story notes, the arrogant Mini-Me of Marxist Cuba is running out of hard currency and may have to devalue its money, raise domestic gasoline prices, cut oil subsidies to other leftist states (such as Cuba), and cut imports of consumer goods. In this socialist hell, crime is exploding as quickly as inflation, and the consumer goods shortages are growing as quickly as the rioting is.
On the other side of the OPEC rift are countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which oppose limits to production. These countries have indicated that they will respond to the drop in prices by exporting more oil. They appear to have several interlocking motives.
First, they are desperate to hold on to their worldwide market shares. The Saudis have been pushing existing customers — especially European ones — to commit to continued purchases of Saudi oil. Clearly, the prospect of the US loosening its ludicrous laws restricting the export of its own oil (which would put us in direct competition with the vile OPEC countries) is concentrating Saudi minds wonderfully. Moreover, Iraq has cut its prices to its existing European and Asian customers, desperately hoping to hold onto its global share.
Second, as a recent UK Telegraph piece explores, the Saudis clearly want to stall if not snuff out the fracking revolution. They want to force US shale production down from the current million barrels a day (bpd) to 500,000 bpd. As the article note, the last eight years of fracking have seen the US cut net its oil imports by 8.7 million bpd, the equivalent of what it was importing from Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, combined.
We now know for sure that we have virtually endless supplies of oil and natural gas right under our own soil, resources that can profitably be extracted at prices from $40 to $80 per barrel.
To what extent the Saudis and other OPEC countries can really contain America’s frolicking frackers is a matter for considerable conjecture. As another report points out, the International Energy Agency notes that only 4% of fracked oil production requires that the market hit $80 a barrel if the production is to be profitable. Most of the oil from the Bakken field (the most productive field currently being exploited in America) would still be profitable even if the price were $42 a barrel. At that price, yes, American frackers would feel pain, but nothing like the pain the Russia and the OPEC states would feel.
As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard recently pointed out, the Saudis are playing a dangerous game: “A deep slump in prices might equally heighten geostrategic turmoil across the broader Middle East and boomerang against the Gulf’s petro-sheikhdoms before it inflicts a knock-out blow on US rivals.” He quotes Harold Hamm, the main genius behind fracking, as saying the most productive shale field is still profitable at $28 per barrel. And as Evans-Pritchard adds, quoting Citigroup, the break-even cost for oil is $161 for Venezuela, $160 for Yemen, $132 for Algeria, $131 for Iran, $126 for Nigeria, $125 for Bahrain, $111 for Iraq, $105 for Russia, and $98 for Saudi Arabia.
Remember this: even if all American frackers had to halt production tomorrow (say, if oil dropped to $20 per barrel), the shale fields, along with the technology now well developed to exploit those reserves, would remain, however long the Saudis and everyone else tried to keep the price low. We now know for sure that we have virtually endless supplies of oil and natural gas right under our own soil, resources that can profitably be extracted, with even today’s technology, at prices from $40 to $80 per barrel. As the technology develops, that strike price will only go down. Any possible “knock-out blow” would knock us out only momentarily.
The third reason the Saudis and other Arab states are so desperate to keep their revenues at present levels — even if it means precipitously pumping down their known reserves — is that the autocrats in charge have been buying their citizens’ passivity with lavish welfare spending. If that ever gets cut, the citizens would probably rise up and cut the heads off the pompous princes and egotistic emirs who have so greedily gorged themselves on the wealth of their lands. As the Wall Street Journal notes, Saudi Arabia needs oil to be at $99 a barrel to balance its budget. So the current low price of oil is making the Saudis use assets from their reserves of foreign currency — which, while extensive, are not inexhaustible.
Another geopolitical change that fracking has introduced involves the Mexican oil industry. A piece in a recent WSJ notes that Mexico is foreseeing a rebirth of its own oil industry, with the aid of US technology and investment. The new president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, did something last year that no president before him had done, since Mexico nationalized its oil industry 70 years ago. Nieto got the Mexican Congress to pass a law (actually, to change the nation’s constitution) allowing private industry, including foreign industry, to help develop new production. Until now, Mexico has jealously guarded its industry, out of an excess of nationalism. While enjoying its national pride, it witnessed a decline in national revenues; but with the rise of fracking as a tool to get old wells producing again, it now anticipates a resurgence of a lucrative industry. The national oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), doesn’t have any expertise in fracking, but US and other countries surely do. As Joel Vazquez, CEO of DCM, a Mexican-Canadian drilling company, put it, “A boom is coming. Not a week goes by without an oil company contacting us asking about making a joint venture, or saying they’re interested in investing here.”
The UK, like Germany, is discovering that so-called Green energy is grotesquely costly.
Mexico will shortly start auctioning off leases for oil exploration. One hundred sixty-nine blocks of Mexican land will be opened for outside development, with about a third of them within 70 miles of Tampico. Most will require fracking and horizontal drilling. It looks as if BP and Royal Dutch Shell will go after the deep-water sites, while Canadian company Pacific Rubiales Energy and a new Mexican startup will focus on the shallow-water and mature onshore sites. Mexico projects an increase of half a million BPD over the next four years.
Another geopolitical impact of our fracking revolution on other countries is the subject of another recent Journal story. The surge in US oil and natural gas production — we now produce more oil and natural gas than do either Russia or Saudi Arabia — is making the British rethink their energy policy.
British billionaire James Ratcliffe, head of the petrochemical giant Ineos, is urging that the UK push fracking. To overcome NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard, anti-development sentiment), the resourceful Ratcliffe plans to offer a generous 4% royalty to property owners and a 2% royalty to municipalities that allow his company to drill fracking wells on their land.
The logic for the Brits — a most logical people, indeed — is clear. Fracking has lifted American production of liquid petroleum products over the past ten years by nearly 60% (from 7.3 million to 11.5 million BPD) and has lifted natural gas production by 30%. But the UK’s own production (of its North Sea fields by conventional drilling) has plummeted, resulting in rapidly growing petroleum imports.
The UK, like Germany, is discovering that so-called Green energy costs a lot of green; in fact, it is grotesquely costly. Because of a Green scheme, one of the UK’s biggest power plants (one that supplies 7% of the country’s power) is converting to wood pellets imported from the American South. But compared to natural gas, wood is immensely productive of carbon emissions. And the switch to wood is going to increase the electricity rate consumers have to pay by — 100%!
Of course, the prescient Ratcliffe is already facing opposition from the same fatuous fools — i.e., environmentalists — that our own energy heroes have had to face. But my guess is that the Brits, after seeing their power and tax bills rise, will see the light and finally favor fracking.
Doubtless, however, the biggest geopolitical impact of the American fracking revolution is on Russia. This is leading to what can best be termed “the Russian rage.” The Putin regime is clearly distraught about the fact that our oil and natural gas renaissance is eclipsing Russia as an energy superpower. A number of articles explore aspects of this phenomenon.
It is now obvious why Putin has seized Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine: he wants to stop Ukrainians from becoming another major competitor in exporting natural gas to Europe.
One of them concerns the recent hubristic boast by the Russian oil tycoon and Putin puppet Leonid Fedun that OPEC’s decision to keep pumping oil and let the price drop will ensure the crash of the US shale industry. Fedun prophesied, “In 2016, when OPEC completes this objective of cleaning up the American marginal market, the oil price will start growing again.… The shale boom is on a par with the dot-com boom.”
Fedun’s claim was that when oil breaks $70 per barrel, most American fracking companies will become unprofitable and collapse, or will do so when their existing hedges (prior contracts to sell their crude oil at $90 per barrel) expire. But he made this boast when oil was still over $70 per barrel. We certainly don’t see any American fracking companies hitting the wall even with oil now in the mid-$60 range, and as indicated by the Evans-Pritchard article discussed earlier, other exporters believe most production from the Bakken field would remain profitable in the range of $40 or even lower.
Also amusing was an article in the Russian regime’s propaganda newspaper Russia Beyond the Headlines by Pat Szymczak. She writes about Ukraine, the country that the dictator Putin has invaded repeatedly and dismembered. Her argument is that Ukraine has tremendous shale gas reserves — the US Energy Information Administration estimates them at 42 trillion cubic feet, the third largest in Europe; and Ukraine’s Black Sea oil potential might exceed that of the North Sea. But these resources haven’t been developed, she claims — with evident crocodile tears! — because in the 20 years since it became independent, Ukraine has had only corrupt oligarchical regimes. And recently, when Shell Oil drilled some exploratory wells, fighting amazingly and mysteriously broke out nearby between the government and Russian separatists. This forced Shell to close out operations.
With smarmy alarm, Szymczak warns that, “Ukraine’s inability to get its act together and take advantage of its assets has created an opening likely to be filled by North America. The US has seemingly overnight moved from being an energy importer to a potentially massive exporter, at a time when Russia is struggling to maintain its position in the midst of a production decline in its prolific West Siberian fields.”
She adds that the US may be planning (as part of the sanctions) to divert to Europe some of its diesel exports currently bound for Latin America, and that the EU is apparently pushing the US to end its current ban on crude oil exports (about which more below). And one of Spain’s largest power companies has just signed a 20-year deal to import $5.6 billion in American liquefied natural gas.
Of course, this article is hilarious on many levels. It is uproariously hypocritical that this Russian propagandist should point to Ukraine as a corrupt oligarchy. What is Putin’s regime if not a corrupt oligarchy? And who does Szymczak think caused fighting to break out close enough to the Shell installation to force it to shut down, if not Putin himself? The Putin regime is funding and arming the ethnic Russian separatists. It is now obvious why Putin has seized Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine: he wants to stop Ukrainians not only from achieving oil independence but also from becoming another major competitor in exporting natural gas to Europe.
Indeed, yet another recent piece — a major New York Times article on the wave of anti-fracking protests suddenly sweeping Eastern Europe — touches on the attempt by Russia to stop Western oil companies from fracking development in Eastern Europe. The article recounts what happened in Romania, when Chevron leased land last year to explore for natural gas. Immediately, a large group of violent “protestors” (read: Putinesque paramilitary provocateurs) showed up and started fighting with the local police. The provocateurs — obviously well-funded — were able to portray the mayor who allowed Chevron in as a traitor to rural Romanians and a sellout to American capitalism. The protestors temporarily made him flee.
Reflecting on the fact that his town never before had demonstrations, and that the moment Chevron showed up, so did a horde of vociferous demonstrators, the mayor concludes that they were a rent-a-mob paid by Russia’s state-controlled oil company, Gazprom. (The Romanian prime minister agrees with the mayor’s assessment). The protestors are, in other words, Putin’s posse, aimed at keeping Western energy companies out of Eastern Europe, which is the former Soviet Empire Putin is eager to reclaim.
What is Putin? He is a megalomaniacal narcissist who wants to be another Stalin.
The story notes that this view — that Russia’s oil arm is funding and fielding anti-fracking armies — is shared by Lithuanian authorities, who saw Chevron chased out of their country by organized violent protestors. The departing secretary-general of NATO, Anders Rasmussen, has voiced the same view: “Russia, as part of their sophisticated . . . disinformation operations, engaged actively with so-called nongovernmental organizations — environmental organizations working against shale gas — to maintain dependence on imported Russian gas.” The statement was echoed by Romanian industrialist Iulian Iancu, who sagely observed, “It is crucial for Russia to keep this energy dependence. It is playing a dirty game.” The rent-a-mob anti-fracking “protests” started three years ago in Bulgaria, which went so far as to ban fracking and cancel Chevron’s licenses.
Of course, both Gazprom and the so-called environmentalist groups heatedly deny that there is Putinesque collusion in all this. And Gazprom exec Alexander Medvedev adds the friendly warning to Europeans that they cannot possibly have a fracking revolution similar to America’s, because of the differences in geology and population density.
The NYT article’s author (Andrew Higgins) gives this view some credibility, pointing out that test wells have proven disappointing in Poland, Romania, and Ukraine. But one might reply that these were only a few wells, all drilled by Chevron, hardly the leader in the art of fracking. My advice to these countries is to ask Harold Hamm, the principal genius behind the fracking revolution, to come out and take a look.
What reasons are there to conclude that the Putin regime is behind these seemingly “spontaneous” demonstrations? Many, I would suggest. To start with, as the prescient Anca-Maria Cernea (leader of a Romanian nationalist group) noted, these “spontaneous” protests involved a coordination of groups that have no natural affinity or historical alliance, such as radical socialists and Eastern Orthodox clergy. Furthermore, the state-controlled Russian “news” media blanketed the airwaves with coverage of the protests over and over, along with warnings about ecological disasters caused by fracking.
Additional evidence is the obvious corporate interest of Gazprom. The Romans bade us ask, “Qui bono?” (“For whose benefit?”). If you want to ask why something is happening, ask in whose self-interest it lies. If Chevron (say) develops Eastern European shale fields, not only will Gazprom (and the Russian regime that controls it) lose out on that market. Eastern Europe could easily become the dominant supplier of energy to Western Europe, displacing Gazprom. Oh, and this could unify Eastern and Western Europe economically, putting the former out of reach by revanchist Russia.
Despite assurances from many of its backers that wind is so efficient that its subsidies would wither away after a few years, the subsidies are proving eternal.
Tied in with this point is another clue — a dog that isn’t barking. By this I mean that while Gazprom is itself exploring (through its Serbian subsidiary Nis) both Serbian and Romanian shale fields, there have been no demonstrations opposing Gazprom. The demonstrating dogs know who their master is. They can smell him even in the dark.
Further, as I noted in a piece not long ago, it’s old news that petro countries fund seemingly independent environmentalists to help stop America’s fracking development. The anti-fracking propaganda movie Promised Land was funded in large part by the United Arab Emirates. And Project Veritas investigative reporter James O’Keefe recently caught on tape a couple of Hollywood producers (Josh and Rebecca Tickell) and a couple of environmentalist activist actors saying they would be happy to work with Middle Eastern petro sheiks.
If American Green ideologues are willing to collaborate with those who want to keep their country energy dependent, why would anyone assume that Eastern European Green ideologues — many of whom were communists working to keep their countries part of the Soviet Empire before it collapsed — are unwilling to see their countries energy dependent? As Joan Rivers would say, “Oh, grow up!”
Finally, who controls Gazprom? Putin. What is Putin? He is a megalomaniacal narcissist who wants to be another Stalin. And what is Putin’s background? He was a career KGB agent who was trained in disinformation campaigns and in the suborning of foreign citizens to work against their own countries. Faced with the threat of the US — which he believed he had neutered because he cowed Obama and Hillary Clinton — becoming the dominant petro-power around the world, enabling the Eastern European countries to be energy independent from Russia, Putin, it is reasonable to assume, would use the tools he was trained to use.
And threatened the tyrant is. As political scientist Ian Bremmer put it recently, Putin has been “backed into a corner” by the drop in prices fracking has caused, “leaving him little option but to continue his aggression toward Ukraine and confrontation with the West.” Bremmer added, “I think that lower oil prices simply squeeze him harder, pushing him farther into a corner. He feels he has to fight as a consequence.”
The theme of Russian vulnerability is echoed by Allan von Mehren, chief analyst at Danske Banke, who said, “Russia in particular seems vulnerable [to dropping oil prices].” He notes that the big decline in oil prices in 1997–98 was a major cause of the subsequent Russian default. The reason for this vulnerability is obvious. Oil and natural gas constitute almost 70% of Russia’s exports, and fund half the country’s federal budget. The country has had to spend $90 billion of its foreign currency reserves to stop the utter collapse of the ruble, which has already dropped in value by over a third.
In sum, as fracking flourishes, look for Russia to become even more aggressive.
Turning from geopolitics to domestic policy, a recent WSJ article explains how the fracking revolution is forcing a long-needed change in America’s ban on oil exports.
Yes, believe it or not, since the Carter era of the 1970s we have restricted the export of our own domestic crude, under the delusion that by restricting the market that our domestic oil producers could sell to we would induce them — to drill for more. Despite calls from major oil companies such as Exxon Mobil for the government to end the moratorium, politicians have been reluctant to deal with populist fears that allowing our companies to sell into an international market will somehow drive up our own prices — as if there were just a fixed amount of oil in this country, and if we sold even a drop of it abroad, our own stash would be diminished.
As the fracking revolution has shown, there is no foreseeable limit to how much oil we can produce. But some oil companies are finding ways around the benighted ban. For example, BHP Billiton has made a deal to sell two thirds of a million barrels of “minimally processed” ultralight crude oil abroad without formal approval from the feds. It is selling the petroleum to the Swiss trading firm Vitol. This move — which is called “self-classification” — is likely to open the gate for many other companies to enter.
The amount of fossil fuel that lies beneath our feet is essentially infinite, and if it ever did reach a limit centuries from now, substitutions would be found.
The idea is clever. Under the decades-old law, the US allows the exporting of refined petroleum fuels (diesel and gasoline) but not of crude oil itself. However, some companies (such as Enterprise Product Partners and Pioneer Natural Resources) have prior governmental approval to export minimally processed oil (called “condensate”). BHP is classifying very lightly processed crude as “condensate,” exempt from the law. BHP is doing its light processing without explicit government approval, although the Commerce Department has been quiet about the practice.
It would be great if more companies followed BHP’s lead. That would encourage more drilling in the long term, and help stymie Saudi Arabia’s efforts to throttle our fracking industry, by making sure that our production can be sold abroad whenever we have an excess here. Of course, it would be even better if we just removed the ban on crude oil exports altogether.
As for the crony, corrupt Green energy industries (the so-called renewable energy producers, especially wind and solar), fracking is pushing them to the wall. Consider wind power. As another recent WSJ piece explains, American wind power has been subsidized for over two decades. Despite assurances from many of its backers that wind is so efficient that its subsidies would wither away after a few years — like the state in the old Soviet Union! — the subsidies are proving eternal. Wind power’s subsidy is a taxpayer gift to wind power producers. This subsidy handed these rentseekers over $7.3 billion since 2007 alone, and it will pay them an additional $2.4 billion next year.
With all subsidies accounted for, the Institute for Energy Research reckons that in 2010 (the last year for which conclusive data are available) wind power received $56.29 per kwh in subsidies, compared with only $3.14 for nuclear power and a meager $0.64 for natural-gas produced electric power. That is, wind power sucked up nearly 90 times the subsidies that natural gas power did.
In short, wind power has managed to shred billions of taxpayer dollars as quickly as it has shredded millions of birds. But this subsidy expired at the end of last year, and wind power producers are desperately trying to renew it before the Senate falls into Republican hands. It looks quite possible that in the face of plummeting oil and natural gas prices, the incoming Congress will end the subsidy once and for all. At which point, wind power will be — well, gone with the wind.
Also worth noting is a WSJ article reporting another possible target for fracking’s creative destruction. I refer to the (again) heavily taxpayer-subsidized electric vehicle (EV) industry. Its only real success has been Tesla, whose zippy, stylish cars have sold well compared to all other EVs. But as gasoline prices have dropped, so has Tesla’s stock. It’s down about 8% recently (after a dramatic rise during the last couple of years).
If oil prices remain low, or fall even further, the EV market will be threatened. And if the EPA manages to kill the coal industry, thus dramatically raising costs of electricity, the EV market will become moribund. It only exists now because of those enormous taxpayer subsidies, and it is unclear how much longer Congress will keep them.
As the Journal noted, we can already guess what the advocates of EVs and the other Green companies will start pushing for if gasoline prices continue to drop: massive new taxes on gasoline to force consumers to go Green. Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla) has already proposed taxing gasoline to make it $10 per gallon at the pump — not from self-interest, you understand, but only from a dispassionate concern for the ecosystem. He thus joins Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, ex-GM exec Bob Lutz, and others calling for steep gasoline taxes so that their preferred Green schemes (EVs, ethanol, biodiesel, etc.) will survive. We will see if the new Congress complies with their proposals. I rather doubt it will.
People aren’t bacteria. People consume resources, but they also produce them.
Lastly, however, I want to mention a non-material but very important effect of the fracking revolution: the creative destruction of a myth. The myth is the notion of “peak oil.” That phrase comes from the idea that any oil-producing area (be it a field, a state, or a country) will eventually reach a peak of production, then tail off, making something like a statistical bell curve.
The concept of peak oil has been around since the start of the oil era. Eminent energy analyst Daniel Yergin quotes the state geologist of Pennsylvania in 1885 as predicting that the amazing early production of petroleum was only a “temporary and vanishing phenomenon — one which young men will live to see come to its natural end.” But the notion was given a scientific patina by M. Kind Hubbard, a geologist for Shell Oil company, in an influential paper of 1956, predicting that American aggregate oil production would peak in the early 1970s, then decline forever after. It appeared that Hubbard’s theory was empirically confirmed when America’s oil production hit a peak of slightly less than 10 million barrels per day (bpd) in 1974, and started declining.
It is now clear that this theory is about to be refuted yet again. Fracking has pushed our production of oil past Saudi Arabia’s current level of 9.7 million bpd. And the International Energy Agency projects that we will overtake Russia’s production of 10.3 million bpd next year.
People still keep predicting peak oil — as Paul Krugman did in 2010, when he crowed that “peak oil has arrived.” With fracking, indeed, we will reach another peak; but very likely someone will come up with another technological improvement, maybe “smacking.” The amount of fossil fuel that lies beneath our feet is, almost surely, essentially infinite, and if it ever did reach a limit centuries from now, substitutions would be found — perhaps from the vast spread of methane hydrates that lie on the ocean floors.
The theory of peak oil is a myth, and it is just a special case of a bigger myth — Malthus’ myth. Malthus held that, sustained by resources, the members of any living species will incrp/prsquo;s federal budget. The country has had to spend $90 billion of its foreign currency reserves to stop the utter collapse of the ruble, which has already dropped in value by over a third.ldquo;minimally processedease their numbers exponentially, so that no matter how plentiful the resources, the species will soon exhaust it. So he held that while people may increase agricultural production, it will only increase arithmetically, while the population will increase exponentially, resulting sooner or later in mass starvation.
But as economist Julian Simon argued, people aren’t bacteria. People consume resources, but they also produce them. People have mouths, but they also have hands, minds, and hearts. They can find new ways of getting any resource, and new substitutions for it also, for time without end.
Gary Jason is an academic philosopher and a senior editor of Liberty. His recent books, Disturbing Thoughts: Unorthodox Writings on Timely Issues and Philosophic Thoughts: Essays on Logic and Philosophy are both available through Amazon.
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