Jim Armitage: Fracking future could see Uncle Sam hanging up his policeman's helmet

Global Outlook: It’s not beyond the realms of reason to see China muscling in on the scene to prop up the sheikhs

By the looks of it, David Cameron won't be legalising drugs anytime soon. So I've been looking for other ways of blowing one's mind. Surprisingly enough, it emerges in a far duller-seeming area of government policy this week: fracking.

Mention the science of extracting hard-to-get gas at tonight's Christmas drinks party and you'll probably soon find yourself alone in the kitchen.

But look deeper into the way it could change the world's economic and political balance and it becomes quite fascinating.

Unfortunately for Britain, even if fracking extracts the most optimistic levels of gas, we're still pretty much doomed to have to continue importing about three-quarters of the stuff that we need in the long term. North Sea supplies are running out and we've opted for a policy of building new, gas-fired power stations over dirtier coal ones to meet our Kyoto targets.

But if the US energy firms keep up their fracking success at these rates, combined with huge gains being made by the likes of BP in its offshore oil industry (glossing over the Macondo disaster for a moment), the world's richest nation should by 2030 or 2040 be entirely energy self-sufficient.

The implications are enormous – nowhere more so than in the Middle East. Just how keen will US popular opinion be during the next recession to continue being the Gulf's policeman? Why does Joe Blow in Ohio care a hoot if the Straits of Hormuz are open or closed if the gasoline in his car is from the good ol' US of A?

Will American taxpayers really want to continue spending countless billions of dollars a year retaining the 40 ships, 175 aircraft and 21,000 military personnel of the US Navy's fabled Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean if it has no need to keep propping up oil-rich governments in the region?

And if the US is not supporting the House of Saud and all those other dynasties, who will?

Would there be an Arab Spring across the Middle East to kick out the royal families we and the Americans have been supporting since the Second World War? Bahrain came close last year.

A full-scale retrenchment from the region would be unlikely, of course – the Israeli lobby in Washington would make sure of that, but the US presence in much of the region could very much shrunk.

If the US did decide to scale back, it's not beyond the realms of reason to imagine China muscling in on the scene to prop up the sheikhs with a bit of military muscle. After all, China is a massive importer of oil from the region and, as its dealings with mineral-rich countries in Africa show, it prefers to deal with incumbent regimes – no matter how unpleasant they may be – rather than encourage popular uprisings.

As I chatted to a couple of political and oil business sources around this subject, I raised the idea that America may want to keep its grip on the Middle East in order to help out its European allies – primarily us.

Cue polite sniggers. After that had subsided, one suggested the US might offer a compromise whereby European Nato partners take up some of the slack. Can Europe afford it, though? And might not France, with its successful switch to nuclear giving it less of an urgent need to secure its gas provisions, say "non" to a bigger contribution?

Perhaps we'd better start building relations quickly with Russia and not get too prissy about this Litvinenko business. If we're sticking with the gas energy policy we've adopted, the coming decades might see a hold-your-nose attitude to the Kremlin becoming more prevalent in Westminster. Talks are already underway between BP and Russia to extend the Nordstream gas pipeline (which takes gas from Russia to the continent) to the White Cliffs of Dover. Expect some interesting diplomacy beyond that judo match Putin watched with Cameron during the Olympics.

And what happens in the Americas when the US becomes a net exporter? The US may never again feel the need to send Rambo types south of the border to destabilise the likes of oil-rich Venezuela. Washington could destroy Hugo Chavez's regime just by exporting the oil price down to levels with which Caracas can't compete.

So far the fracking boom in the US has not had too much of a radical impact on the global energy markets: not long after it was becoming a big deal in the US public debate, the Fukushima nuclear tragedy happened.

Almost overnight, Japan, the world's third-biggest economy with nearly 130 million electricity-guzzling inhabitants, switched from nuclear to gas. Also as a result of Fukushima, the world's fourth-biggest economy Germany is doing the same.

Events like that make predicting the future for energy – and therefore global politics – rather more of an art than a science. Throw in the occasional monster find in an unexpected area and your predictions go badly awry. Israel recently had a big discovery offshore recently, for example.

Meanwhile, given the rule, as spelled out to me by one thinktanker, that shale gas tends to be biggest "when there's bugger all in the way", it could well transpire that the vast, uninhabited tracts of Australia could be an enormous new supplier.

This would add to coal, iron ore and all the other valuable stuff which the Aussies have been shipping out to China to keep itself recession-free in recent years.

Then you get the surprise failures. Given its success in offshore gas (in partnership with Britain's BG Group), who'd have thought Brazil would struggle to extract its oil reserves? Investors who piled into state-owned Petrobras when it struck black gold in 2007 certainly didn't. They're nursing painful losses as political meddling in the oil market has left the country still importing heavily from the US (yes, the US was already exporting some oil even before fracking).

Once you start playing fracking futurology, you can then start getting into the advanced version of the game – What If? Had the US been self-sufficient, would we have had the invasion of Iraq? And how about Afghanistan? Would al Qaeda even exist if the US did not need such a presence in the Middle East to keep its energy supplies?

Fun to consider, isn't it? There you go. Next time you're at a party and a shifty bloke old enough to know better offers you a funny-looking cigarette, strike up a conversation about fracking instead.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Sales Assistant / Buyer

£15000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company offers a range of ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisors are r...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: SThree were established in 1986....

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Manager

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Compliance Manager is require...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy