Pumpjacks in an oil field in Midland, Texas. (Nick Oxford/Reuters)
It’s our choice.
Here is a news lead that begins with a bang and ends with a whimper: “The strike on the heartland of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry, including damage to the world’s biggest petroleum-processing facility, has driven oil prices to their highest level in” — here, Reuters should have used some ellipses of irony — “nearly four months.”
If the United States declines to go to war against Iran on behalf of Saudi Arabia, our increasingly troublesome client state, one of the reasons for that happy development will be: because we do not need to. It is no longer the case that the world sneezes when the Saudis catch a cold. U.S. interests and Saudi interests remain aligned, broadly, but they are severable.
When the United States intensified its attention to the Middle East in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the country was heavily dependent on petroleum imports. Today, the United States is the world’s largest exporter of petroleum — thanks to fracking. The pointy-headed guys in the Washington war rooms spend a lot less time worrying about whether tankers can get through the Strait of Hormuz these days. And that means the United States has a much more free hand — and more realistic options — when dealing with Riyadh, Tehran, or any of the other pits of vipers that pass for national capitals in that part of the world.
“No war for oil!” they chanted when George W. Bush’s administration prepared to invade Iraq. It was always a stupid slogan — if we’d wanted to get our hands on that Iraqi oil, we could simply have bought it at a discount rather than pay a horrifying blood premium for it — but now that chant can reasonably be turned back on its authors: If you want less war, then you should want a lot more fracking.
And not just here in the United States, even though the people of New York State, for example, would be much better off without Governor Andrew Cuomo’s idiotic and politically driven prohibition on the most effective means of petroleum production. Spain has seen its demand for natural gas climb as worldwide production drives prices down, but, thanks to its own Cuomos, the country remains largely dependent on imports from Algeria and Nigeria — even though it sits on reserves that by some estimates are equal to the better part of a century’s consumption. The United Kingdom may be able to extricate itself from the European Union, but if nothing changes, it will remain vulnerable to the same Russian energy pressure as much of Europe. In much the same way that increased petroleum production has given the United States a stronger position vis-à-vis the Middle East, more British and European production means more British and European options.
Set aside the fantasy of “energy independence.” World energy markets are heavily integrated, and it probably is never going to be the case that what happens in Saudi Arabia or Russia or Iran has no effect on U.S., British, or European prices and supplies. And even if that happy state comes to be someday, it is not the case now and will not be the case in the near future: The spare capacity that allows the world petroleum markets to function smoothly provides, at the moment, a margin that is insufficient to cover the production that could realistically be taken offline by a broader Iranian attack on Saudi energy infrastructure. U.S. refineries remain disproportionately optimized for the relatively high-sulfur oil we’ve long imported rather than for the “light sweet” crude we produce. Our own energy infrastructure, and that of the rest of the world, remains far too vulnerable to terrorism and conventional military attack. There is much work to be done.
It all begins with supply. The more supply there is, the more incentive to build out and improve the infrastructure, the more liquid the market, the less fragile the system. There is no substitute for abundance — and a wide choice of providers. Every barrel of oil and cubic foot of natural gas produced outside of the Middle East and Russia makes the United States and its allies better off.
Beady-eyed realpolitik used to mean deferring to the world’s big oil producers when it came to our relations in the Middle East. Now it means being the world’s big oil producer and — once they decide they’ve grown tired of unnecessarily taking on risk while giving up wealth, income, and jobs — helping our British and European allies become bigger players, too. Fracking involves some real environmental challenges — American producers and regulators have developed great skill at dealing with them. The environmental challenges of fracking are manageable. The Saudis and the Iranians are manageable, too, but at a radically higher cost in blood and resources.
Politics is about tradeoffs. We owe it to ourselves to take the smart one.