Fracking Doesn't Threaten Russian Power
It is an uncomfortable fact for European politicians professing resistance to Russia's geopolitical assertiveness that their energy dependence on Russia is growing. In 2013, the Russian state-controlled natural-gas monopoly, Gazprom, increased its market share in Europe and Turkey to 30 percent, the company proudly announced. This share is bigger than the 2011 historic maximum of 27 percent. Gazprom's exports to Germany increased by 21 percent, to Italy by 68 percent and to the U.K. by 54 percent in 2013.
While hydraulic fracturing -- or fracking -- of shale formations is helping the U.S. achieve energy independence, giving it a freer hand in Middle Eastern policy, the expected effects of the shale revolution for Europe haven't materialized. Liquefied natural gas from the Persian Gulf could have been diverted from the U.S., where demand has shrunk, to Europe. But in 2013, LNG supplies to Europe actually dropped: They mostly went to Asian markets where exporters could command higher prices. If the U.S. manages to export LNG in significant quantities, its price will be roughly the same as what Gazprom charges, a little less than $11 per million British thermal units, not counting delivery costs from ports to the heart of the continent, according to the International Energy Agency.
The U.S. shale revolution, then, isn't doing much to help Europe expand its range of energy sources. Sustainable energy subsidies are going out of fashion even in Germany: They are too much of a burden on industry, which already pays three times U.S. rates for electricity. Only a shale boom of its own could help Europe out of this predicament. Or could it?
The Institute of Sustainable Development and International Relations at Sciences Po, the prestigious social sciences school in Paris, recently issued a policy paper saying that even in the U.S., shale gas and tight oil have not had the touted effect on the economy, and that the EU shouldn't count on unconventional extraction as a magic pill.
Thomas Spencer and his two co-authors from Sciences Po have calculated that unconventional oil and gas development in the U.S. only added 0.88 percent to U.S. gross domestic product between 2007 and 2012. Nor has the shale revolution done much to reduce the U.S.'s manufacturing trade deficit, which increased from $662.2 billion in 2006 to $779.4 billion in 2012. According to the policy paper, gas-intensive sectors, such as basic petrochemicals, are only responsible for 1.2 percent of U.S. GDP, and the increases in exports from these sectors have been a drop in the bucket.
The Sciences Po team points out that despite a steep fall in gas prices caused by the arrival of fracking, both household and industrial electricity prices in the U.S. have kept rising. And natural gas prices will go up again, the paper predicts. "The dramatic decline of U.S. natural gas prices does not appear sustainable in the longer term," the document says, pointing to short-term factors that led to the price collapse, such as a limited export capacity and inelastic gas consumption. "Longer-term expectations of production costs for shale is situated closer to 6-10'' dollar per million Btu, according to the report. The high end of this prediction is close to Gazprom's European prices.
All in all, the Sciences Po team predicts, the shale revolution will give the U.S. 0.84 percent in GDP growth from 2012 to 2035 -- not annually, but in total.
Europe, according to the policy paper, can't even count on that much. The U.S. drilled 17,268 exploratory natural gas wells between 2000 and 2010; Europe only has 50 such wells now. Science Po predicts that by 2035, shale gas will cover between 3 percent to 10 percent of its natural gas demand.
That still leaves Gazprom plenty of room on the European market. Besides, if it wanted to wage a price war on unconventional producers, it could. The Russian company's production cost is about $1.5 per million Btu, which pipeline delivery to Europe roughly doubles.
It appears to many observers as if Russia has slept through the shale revolution, falling hopelessly behind the U.S. Russian President Vladimir Putin was ridiculed for saying last year he did not "see much in the way of serious change for the global gas market." If the Sciences Po experts are to be believed, Putin is reading the cards right and Russia's energy power in Europe faces no serious threats for the foreseeable future.
Any revolution is at least part hype, and the shale one is no exception. So far, its economic and geopolitical effects are in question, and large parts of the world are beyond the reach even of its theoretical influence. Europe is one example: No disruptive technology is likely to make Russia irrelevant here, and its virulent distrust of the West makes it a dangerous and unpredictable player. So far, the EU and the U.S. have only fostered the hostility as if Russia could be written off. That is a mistake.
(Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him onTwitter.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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