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
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Recruitment Genius: Client Services Assistant

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client Services Assistant is ...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor