From Importer To Exporter: The Shifting Geopolitics Of U.S. Energy Policy

News & SocietyPolitics

  • Author Alexander Hoogsteyn
  • Published January 20, 2024
  • Word count 992

The United States has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years, reshaping its energy landscape from a net importer to a net exporter. This shift has profound implications for the country’s foreign policy, especially when it comes to its involvement in the Middle East. In this article, we explore how the intertwining of geopolitics and energy has influenced U.S. policy decisions, with a particular focus on the recent stance in the Israel-Hamas conflict.

The shale revolution, marked by the widespread extraction of oil and natural gas from shale rock formations, has been a game-changer for the United States. This technological breakthrough not only boosted domestic energy production but also turned the nation into a net energy exporter. The implications of this transformation extend beyond the energy sector. The shale revolution has provided the U.S. with newfound economic resilience and energy independence.

For those who are not yet familiar with shale gas extraction, it is essentially a form of gas extraction that, before the year 2000 was unthinkable. Due to the invention of a new gas extraction method— hydraulic fracking —suddenly gas could be extracted from fields which were previously deemed untappable. In 2010 around 20% of U.S. natural gas production used hydraulic fracking.

The hydraulic fracking process involves three major steps:

Drilling: First the drilling begins. High-powered drill bits bore deep into the Earth, often hundreds of meters below the surface. The wells are drilled vertically and then, sometimes, horizontally into the shale layer.

Hydraulic Fracturing: This is when the magic happens. Once the well reaches the shale layer, a mix of water, sand, and various chemicals is injected at high pressure. This fractures the rock in the shale layer, allowing the gas entrapped in the rock to be released.

Gas Collection: As the fractures open up, the released natural gas travels up the well to the surface. This gas is then collected and transported to facilities for processing.

While shale gas extraction has brought about a significant energy resource, it is not without its environmental concerns. One of the primary worries revolves around water usage and contamination. The hydraulic fracturing process demands an immense volume of water, which raises concerns about its impact on local water resources. Additionally, the chemicals used in the fracking fluid, though a small percentage of the total mixture, raise worries about potential groundwater contamination. Furthermore, the release of methane during the extraction and transportation process adds to environmental worries as methane is a potent greenhouse gas, contributing to climate change. Controlling and mitigating these environmental impacts remain significant challenges in the pursuit of sustainable energy practices, prompting stringent monitoring of the shale gas extraction process.

Overall, the shale gas revolution represents a transformative shift in the energy landscape, enabling increased domestic production, improving energy security, and influencing economic and geopolitical dynamics at both national and international levels.

Historically, the United States’ foreign policy has been deeply entwined with its need for secure and stable access to energy resources, particularly oil. Past administrations, including those under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have faced challenges stemming from the nation’s reliance on Middle Eastern oil. This reliance necessitated the administrations to aim to stabilise a volatile region in order to attain a predictable flow of oil that could be relied on. This led to complex geopolitical entanglements and added a reason to have a military presence in the region.

Examples of U.S. interventions in the Middle East would be: The Gulf War (1990-1991) that was initiated under President Bush’s administration in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait; the invasion of Iraq (2003) which was launched during President George W. Bush’s tenure, based on concerns about weapons of mass destruction and the desire to change the regime in Iraq; and support for Israel which has been a consistent element of U.S. foreign policy and has spanned multiple U.S. presidencies, including recent administrations like those of President Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden.

In recent years, the U.S. approach to the Middle East has experienced a remarkable shift. This change is particularly evident in the strategic withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region and the reduced involvement in conflicts. The question arises: Is this change in policy a coincidence, or is it directly linked to the newfound energy independence the U.S. enjoys?

The shale revolution has made the U.S. less dependent on Middle Eastern oil, effectively reducing the need for interfering in the region. With access to abundant domestic energy resources, the United States is no longer as susceptible to disruptions in global oil markets. As a result, it has less reason to become embroiled in Middle Eastern conflicts or to maintain a significant military footprint in the area.

Examining recent U.S. stances on the Israel-Hamas conflict provides an interesting case study. Historically, the United States has played a central role in mediating and influencing events in the Middle East, particularly in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, recent developments suggest a more restrained approach.

The U.S. has taken a more hands-off approach in recent years, allowing regional actors to take a more prominent role in addressing the Israel-Hamas situation. This shift in policy could be seen as a direct consequence of the country’s changing energy dynamics. With less reliance on Middle Eastern oil and a reduced military presence, the U.S. may no longer see it as necessary to exert the same level of influence in the region.

The shifting landscape of U.S. energy, from a net importer to a net exporter, has fundamentally altered the nation’s foreign policy calculus. The decreased reliance on Middle Eastern oil, as demonstrated by the shale revolution, has led to a reduction in the country’s involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts, including the Israel-Hamas situation. This transformation in the intertwining of energy and geopolitics underscores the importance of energy independence and its potential to reshape the world.

Alexander Hoogsteyn is a PhD researcher in energy markets and writes for about energy to a wider audience.

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