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Fracking is propping up the US economy

No wonder the UK wants a piece.

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

Rumours of America's death as the world's predominant economic power, to paraphrase Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, it now appears that Uncle Sam's hegemony seems set to continue for the foreseeable future. The Chinese dragon, which has for years been predicted to outperform the US eagle and assume the mantle of undisputed economic superpower, seems to have slowed its fiery progress and receded into its cave somewhat. The principal reason for this geo-political shift is largely driven by the USA’s current epoch-defining energy boom, courtesy of the discovery of huge shale gas reserves and the advent of fracking technology.

Fracking, the process of blasting shale gas from rock, is already revolutionising US energy capability and providing a shot in the arm for an economy that only a few years ago was wallowing in a deep recession brought about by the subprime mortgage collapse. The USA was a net importer of gas prior to shale coming to the rescue - now, in a remarkable volte face, it is a net exporter and has the power to drive the US economy into a new era of prosperity. This is not hyperbole; this is the technological breakthrough in energy of this generation and has already started to rebalance the global economic system. With cheap liquefied gas driving brent crude prices down in the US, the economy is no longer as dependent on the OPEC countries’ output and price controls. As the US returns to being self-sufficient, fuel is becoming cheaper and consumer spending is on the rise. The US has got more than 10,000 fracking wells opening up each year and their gas prices are three-and-a-half times lower than in the UK.

Clearly fracking has come at the right time for the US, as the country was beginning to recover it then received a huge boost from shale. As the US economy recovers and returns to growth, the knock-on effect for the rest of the world will be palpable. Global oil prices should fall, particularly good news for countries such as Russia, whose economy is driven by oil production and consumption. In short, prosperity is slowly returning to the economic behemoth and will continue to grow as the shale revolution fuels the US economy. This is happening at a time when the much vaunted rise of the BRIC countries - China in particular - is beginning to slow somewhat in the face of a declining export market, poor interest rates, closed financial markets and ever growing labour and manufacturing costs causing developed countries to repatriate certain higher-end manufacturing services.

It is no wonder that countries like the UK want to take advantage of fracking technology, on the basis that if the UK only sees a small percentage of the impact that shale gas has had in the US, there should be lower energy prices in the UK and greater household wealth. The American energy boom narrative is however a singular one and something that small countries such as the UK would do well not to ape too closely. The US has huge tracts of hinterland devoted to mining for shale gas - the majority of shale in the UK will have to be extracted in and around urban areas, so there is simply not the room for a wholesale energy revolution. Also, shale gas is a finite resource, so even the US will likely only benefit from this cheap energy source for the next 20-25 years.

What is critical for the UK and other major European economies is to continue prioritising research and development into alternative renewable energy technology, an area that the UK already leads in terms of innovation. Perhaps then the UK can find its own shale revolution using renewable, clean energy technology.