Political Concepts

Political Implications of Shale Energy

Shale energy continues to make global headlines as the development of new technologies in extraction and drilling have made previously unrecoverable energy now recoverable. The world’s dependence on energy makes this development very important. In order to understand the impact of this development there are a number of issues that need to be understood, which then allows us to asses its political implications.

1. Energy is the foundation of any modern economy. It is today a key ingredient to almost all human activities. From cooking, industrial processes, fuel for motor vehicles and aeroplanes as well as agriculture. A nation that lacks energy resources and the ability to harness them would have to seek them from abroad creating a foreign dependency. It is not surprising the nations who have harnessed energy are also the world’s powers. The last two centuries has seen rapid economic and industrial development as new technologies have allowed the extraction of different types of energy such as oil, gas and coal resulting in rapid economic development, a new global balance of power and patterns of living.

2. The world’s energy is primarily derived from fossil fuels. Oil, gas and coal made up 80% of the worlds energy use in 2011 (oil – 36%, coal – 23%, gas – 21%, BP Statistical review 2012). The remainder was primarily from nuclear and hydropower. Fossils develop over millions of years from decaying plants and animals which sank into the sand and mud at the bottom of the sea. The absence of oxygen created immense heat and pressure leading to a chemical reaction that altered the decaying plant and animal matter into liquid. The products of this chemical reaction are found as deposits within the earth’s surface between different layers of rock. Depending on how long the chemical reaction has been taking place when the deposit is discovered, when found in liquid form it is considered petroleum, in gaseous form it is natural gas and in solid form it can be coal or shale. The quality, type and composition of fossil fuel all depends on at which stage of the chemical reaction the deposit is. This is why the oil around the world is of different types, in some places it is mixed with sand and mud, such as Canada, in other areas it can be like water such as Saudi Arabia, in other areas it can be almost solid and heavy such as Venezuela.

3. When attempting to discover fossil fuel deposits, various techniques and technologies have been developed. For the moment drilling for energy has been to depths of around one mile as this is where oil and gas is found in significant quantities, having escaped from their original sources. The World’s largest oil field – the Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia is liquid that escaped from its original source in a very large quantity and settled in between the earth’s crust and through drilling techniques it has been extracted and fuels most of the world’s daily oil needs. Nearly 85% of the easily extractable energy has already been mapped and analysts do not believe another Ghawar will be found in the remaining 15%. For these reasons drilling and searching for fossil fuels further within the earth is needed, but this requires more advanced technology and newer techniques and methods due to the depth. Drilling becomes more difficult as the depth increases, due to increases in temperature and pressure. Drilling in such conditions necessitates more durable materials and can increase the energy requirements, along with the costs and risks of a drilling operation.

4. By the grace of Allah سبحانه وتعالى fossil fuels have been given a number of characteristics that make them very useful in generating energy. Crude oil as an example has hundreds of hydrocarbons, which when boiled at very high temperatures in an oil refinery allows them to be separated as Kerosene, diesel, grease, wax and tar. These fuels when burned, whether in a car engine, jet engine or industry give of large amounts of energy, which moves a car, allows an airplane to fly and keeps a machine running for hours in a factory. Today oil is used to power the world’s transport, coal is primarily used to generate electricity and gas is used to power homes.

5. Controlling the world’s energy sources would give a nation considerable political power due to the dependency every nation has on energy for its economy. Europe was able to harness coal and then oil to power the combustion engine which sparked the industrial revolution. The West was then able to secure many of the world’s energy sources and this allowed them to colonise the world. Today Europe’s dependency on Russian gas is used as a political tool by Russia. For Europe finding alternative energy such as Libya’s oil and Algeria’s gas are key political challenges. China’s need for energy to power its rapidly developing economy has led it to develop relations with the nations of Africa, thus competing with Europe and America.

6. The developments in Shale energy have been due to the need to find new sources of oil and gas and also due to the development in new drilling techniques and methods. This has now allowed previously unrecoverable energy reserves to be extracted. Energy is extracted from shale rocks deep in the earth by blasting them apart through a process called ‘fracking,’ this is where the injection of water with sand and chemicals at high pressure along horizontal pipes causes cracks in the shale rock, which then allows oil and gas to seep through. This process has been controversial as it has caused earthquakes and requires two barrels of water to extract one barrel of oil. Due to drilling taking place so far in the earth there is the prospect of water sources becoming contaminated and soil damage taking place. Whilst there are many who have written about the negative aspects of this new technical process the prospects of new sources of energy has been given priority by Western governments.

7. The political implications of the new development may strengthen the American position globally. America has led the way in this area and is considered to posses the world’s largest reserves of shale oil. The 2012 annual energy review by the International Energy Agency (IEA) outlined that new Shale sources could fuel US’s energy independence, and make the country the world’s biggest oil producer by 2017. US energy dependency has long dominated successive administrations. The US today consumes around 19 million barrels of oil a day (bpd), domestic production from US oil fields accounts for only 10 million (bpd), the remainder is imported. This could now, possibly be completely reversed. According to the RAND institute US shale reserves can produce an estimated 1.5 to 1.8 trillion barrels of crude oil, three times more than the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.

8. It is unlikely the importance of the Middle East will be reduced. 61% of the world’s oil reserves are in this region but more importantly the region possesses the sweet type of crude oil, which is the cheapest to extract and the cheapest and easiest to refine. The sheer size of the reserves makes this region important globally as who ever controls the region controls the world’s energy supplies and if the ummah established the Khilafah it would be in a very strong position upon its emergence. Therefore it is unlikely the US will stop interfering in this region.

America has overcome the technological obstacles to extract from deep within the earth. These new technological improvements mean she may be able to end her dependency on foreign energy. This will have big political ramifications as America may become self-sufficient in energy within a decade, and even begin exporting energy. For the rest of the world there will be a rush to develop there own deposits of shale and then to develop those of other countries who they have influence over. Whilst this may be an opportunity for many nations to free themselves from the exploitation of the colonialists including the Muslim world, the challenge for them is to develop this technology themselves otherwise they will depend on western technology which has strangled them in the past.