American Technologists and Entrepreneurs Re-Set Russian Relations

American Technologists and Entrepreneurs Re-Set Russian Relations

By Sir Tony Brenton and Mark Mills - September 4, 2013

Unsurprisingly, oil prices are up in reaction to the Syrian mess. It’s worth keeping in mind that President Putin is at the top of the list of world leaders who benefit from this. The linkage between oil prices and Russia’s revenues cannot be ignored in calibrating what has, and may happen yet in the Middle East.

Hydrocarbons account for two-thirds of Russian export revenues and nearly half of its state budget. And until very recently just two regions, Russia and the Middle East, dominated world trade in oil and gas. Russia has regularly boasted of being an “energy superpower”. Indeed the whole Putin system is built on channeling hydrocarbon profits to regime supporters, as well as financing domestic military expansion. There were quite a few raised eyebrows at this year’s Paris Air Show when Russia showed off its new, expensive, Su-35 high-tech fighter aircraft.

Meanwhile, under President Obama -- and we hasten to note largely independent of and arguably despite U.S. federal policies -- entrepreneurs have created an oil and gas revolution in the American shale fields that undermines Russia’s export profits, and perhaps the very survival of Putin’s governance.

Russian oil production is at a 25-year high. If this had occurred in the tight world oil market everyone had expected, revenues would have soared in recent years. While the threat of Middle East war causes markets to price ahead of a supply disruption, historically that’s been a short-term effect. In the longer term the energy landscape has been permanently reset over the past half-dozen years with the entry of American oil and gas technology, inelegantly dubbed shale fracking.

The United States today is the world’s fastest growing oil and gas producer and is already eroding Russian revenues and influence. With production gushing out of the heartland, America has pushed Russia aside to become number one in global gas production. The prospect of future U.S. LNG exports is now exerting downward pressure on prices of Russian gas exports to Europe. Russia is increasingly being forced to abandon the, once sacred, gas-oil price link to maintain market share.

The new state of affairs has visibly emboldened European policymakers. Even the Germans are taking a tougher stance on Russian human rights practices. Europe has finally found the nerve to launch a major antitrust suit against Gazprom. And while much of Europe has reacted querulously to the coming shale boom, those with the most painful experience of Russian energy dominance, Poland and Ukraine, are determined to unlock their own shale reserves.

The International Energy Agency’s labeling the U.S. the “new Middle East” underlines the fact that shale can no longer be written off as a marginal fluctuation. North American gas exports to Europe are not a matter of if, but of how soon and how much. The US is already a net exporter of gasoline and diesel fuel, much of it to Europe. There is even the possibility of U.S. crude exports as production there exceeds domestic refinery capacity.

None of this comes from new discoveries – American, indeed global shale fields have existed for millennia – nor just from fracking alone. The game changer is largely the result of information technology. Sub-surface imaging and big data have made finding, drilling and operating wells (both land-side fracked ones, and in deep water) vastly more productive. Such technologies were once available only to majors but are now used by the thousands of small and mid-sized U.S. oil and gas businesses that have driven the boom.

Add to all this the uniquely American feature of private ownership of mineral rights. The economic alignment between tens of thousands of small parties – land-owners and producers -- is quite unlike anything else in the world. (We expect some nations will emulate this through creative profit sharing.) In short, we are witnessing an historic shift in world energy production resulting from the unique dynamism and creativity of U.S. style capitalism.

Thus far Russia’s reaction to the shale gale has been to dismiss it as a “bubble.” But they know better. As the European market has become less hospitable, Russia has ramped up its focus on gas exports to the far east.

A prospective deal with China is reportedly worth $270 billion. We are also seeing Russia accelerate Arctic projects to sell even more to Asia. The $20 billion collaborative project in the Yurkharovskoye Arctic gas field, together with China’s National Petroleum Corp and France’s Total, is a sign of things to come.

When the Syrian debacle settles out (which we all hope is soon), the world returns to a much less comfortable, perhaps brutal reality for regimes over-dependent on hydrocarbon exports. The Chinese growth upon which high energy prices have heavily depended for the last decade is slowing. China has its own vast shale potential which (with U.S. help) it is starting to explore. Myriad small producers in America can now make a decent profit on oil at $70 a barrel. A price anything like that would be economic – and potentially political – disaster for Russia (and indeed even Saudi Arabia).

Putin’s regime is built on a foundation of high oil prices. There’s a lot at stake in seeing higher, not lower prices. 

Brenton is a Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and formerly Britain’s Ambassador to Russia, and Mills is a Senior Fellow of the Manhattan Institute and co-author of “The Bottomless Well.”

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