Fracking is propping up the US economy

No wonder the UK wants a piece.

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.

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Theresa May’s Brexit speech is Angela Merkel’s victory – here’s why

The Germans coined the word “merkeln to describe their Chancellor’s approach to negotiations. 

It is a measure of Britain’s weak position that Theresa May accepts Angela Merkel’s ultimatum even before the Brexit negotiations have formally started

The British Prime Minister blinked first when she presented her plan for Brexit Tuesday morning. After months of repeating the tautological mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, she finally specified her position when she essentially proposed that Britain should leave the internal market for goods, services and people, which had been so championed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

By accepting that the “UK will be outside” and that there can be “no half-way house”, Theresa May has essentially caved in before the negotiations have begun.

At her meeting with May in July last year, the German Chancellor stated her ultimatum that there could be no “Rosinenpickerei” – the German equivalent of cherry picking. Merkel stated that Britain was not free to choose. That is still her position.

Back then, May was still battling for access to the internal market. It is a measure of how much her position has weakened that the Prime Minister has been forced to accept that Britain will have to leave the single market.

For those who have followed Merkel in her eleven years as German Kanzlerin there is sense of déjà vu about all this.  In negotiations over the Greek debt in 2011 and in 2015, as well as in her negotiations with German banks, in the wake of the global clash in 2008, Merkel played a waiting game; she let others reveal their hands first. The Germans even coined the word "merkeln", to describe the Chancellor’s favoured approach to negotiations.

Unlike other politicians, Frau Merkel is known for her careful analysis, behind-the-scene diplomacy and her determination to pursue German interests. All these are evident in the Brexit negotiations even before they have started.

Much has been made of US President-Elect Donald Trump’s offer to do a trade deal with Britain “very quickly” (as well as bad-mouthing Merkel). In the greater scheme of things, such a deal – should it come – will amount to very little. The UK’s exports to the EU were valued at £223.3bn in 2015 – roughly five times as much as our exports to the United States. 

But more importantly, Britain’s main export is services. It constitutes 79 per cent of the economy, according to the Office of National Statistics. Without access to the single market for services, and without free movement of skilled workers, the financial sector will have a strong incentive to move to the European mainland.

This is Germany’s gain. There is a general consensus that many banks are ready to move if Britain quits the single market, and Frankfurt is an obvious destination.

In an election year, this is welcome news for Merkel. That the British Prime Minister voluntarily gives up the access to the internal market is a boon for the German Chancellor and solves several of her problems. 

May’s acceptance that Britain will not be in the single market shows that no country is able to secure a better deal outside the EU. This will deter other countries from following the UK’s example. 

Moreover, securing a deal that will make Frankfurt the financial centre in Europe will give Merkel a political boost, and will take focus away from other issues such as immigration.

Despite the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, the largely proportional electoral system in Germany will all but guarantee that the current coalition government continues after the elections to the Bundestag in September.

Before the referendum in June last year, Brexiteers published a poster with the mildly xenophobic message "Halt ze German advance". By essentially caving in to Merkel’s demands before these have been expressly stated, Mrs May will strengthen Germany at Britain’s expense. 

Perhaps, the German word schadenfreude comes to mind?

Matthew Qvortrup is author of the book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader published by Duckworth, and professor of applied political science at Coventry University.