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The Geopolitics of Natural Gas


By Michael T. Klare
The Nation.
January 23, 2006


Now In the high-stakes arena of energy geopolitics, natural gas
is rapidly emerging as the next big prize.

What oil was to the twentieth century, natural gas will be to the twenty-first.
Consider these recent developments:

Anatol Lieven: The Obama administration simply cannot afford a confrontation
with Russia, given the challenges we face elsewhere. A Green Stimulus for the
People Energy

Lisa Margonelli: Obama's environmental agenda can empower working people to
take control of their energy use. Editorial Malpractice Washington Post
Mark Ames: Deconstructing Russia coverage on the Washington Post editorial
page. MoreThe Fall of Triumphalism US Foreign Policy

Michael T. Klare: Because of the hubris of Bush and Cheney, we face a world of
multiplied dangers, emboldened challengers and a paucity of reliable allies.
Obama's Energy Challenge Energy

Michael T. Klare: Of all the challenges Barack Obama faces, none is more
daunting, or more important to our collective future, as energy. Palin's
Petropolitics Alaska

Michael T. Klare: Palin's opposition to government-supported renewable energy
makes her stupendously ill equipped for national office.. As we went to
press, Russia was restoring the flow of natural gas to Western and Central
Europe after state-controlled Gazprom curtailed deliveries on January 1 in a bid
to force Ukraine to pay the market price for gas previously supplied at
subsidized rates. Although emphasizing the price issue, Russian officials
apparently intended to constrict Ukraine's energy supplies as a way of punishing
that country's pro-Western president, Viktor Yushchenko, architect of the Orange
Revolution, for his overtures to NATO and the EU. Gazprom's pipelines to Western
Europe (which buys a quarter of its gas from Russia) pass through Ukraine so it
could siphon off some of the diminished supply, leaving very little for other
customers and provoking fears of an energy crisis at the onset of winter.

Item. A dispute between China and Japan over the ownership of an undersea gas
field in an area of the East China Sea claimed by both countries has grown
increasingly inflammatory, with China sending warships into the area and Japan
threatening "bold action" if the Chinese begin pumping gas from the field. The
conflict has soured relations between Beijing and Tokyo and provoked a strong
nationalistic response from the populations of both countries. The huge
anti-Japanese demonstrations in Shanghai and other Chinese cities last April
were prompted, in part, by Tokyo's announcement that it would permit drilling in
the area by Japanese firms. A peaceful resolution of the dispute does not appear imminent.

Item. Ever since India announced plans more than a year ago to build a natural
gas pipeline from fields in Iran to its own territory via Pakistan, the Bush
Administration has been applying pressure on New Delhi to cancel the project,
claiming it will undermine US attempts to isolate Tehran and curb its nuclear
efforts. "We have communicated to the Indian government our concerns about the
gas pipeline cooperation between Iran and India," Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice announced after meeting with Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh on March
16. But the Indians have continued talks with Islamabad and Tehran over the pipeline plan.

The United States is becoming increasingly dependent on natural gas. This
country now relies on natural gas for approximately one-fourth of its total
energy supply, more than from any source except oil. As a result, the economy
has become more and more vulnerable to fluctuations in gas supply and pricing--a
vulnerability that should be especially evident this winter as gas prices hit
record levels, with painful effects on the poor. Natural gas provides
approximately 14 percent of the energy used to generate electricity in this
country, 45 percent of home heating fuel and 31 percent of the energy and
petrochemicals consumed by agriculture and industry. Gas is also used as a
feedstock for the manufacture of hydrogen, a promising new entrant in the race
to develop alternative fuels.

The United States currently relies on North American supplies for most of its
gas, but with those reserves being depleted at a rapid pace and few untapped
fields available for exploitation, need for gas from other regions is growing
and energy plants seek more gas from foreign suppliers like Qatar, Nigeria and
Russia. As with oil, America could become heavily dependent on foreign suppliers
for essential energy needs, a situation fraught with danger for national
security. Many of America's key allies, including the NATO powers and Japan, are
dependent on imports.

As the global output of petroleum begins to contract in the decades ahead,
industrialized nations will increasingly rely on natural gas. According to the
Energy Department, the world's known gas reserves stood at 6,076 trillion cubic
feet in 2004. In terms of energy output, this is equivalent to approximately
1,094 billion barrels of oil, or approximately 92 percent of known petroleum
reserves. But because the world is consuming a smaller proportion each year of
the remaining gas supply than it is of the remaining oil supply (1.5 percent as
compared with 2.5 percent), gas should remain relatively abundant even after the
supply of petroleum begins to contract. Considerable untouched gas is also
believed to reside in remote "stranded" fields that could someday be added to
the tally of proven reserves, further enhancing the fuel's role in the global
energy equation.

 

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