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Shale gas and the neo-strategy of the United States

We offer below the first part of the in-depth article El gas de esquisto y la neoestrategia de EE.UU (Shale Gas and the Neo-Strategy of the United States) by Fernando Liborio Soto, which was published on the website of the Instituto Español de Estudios Estratégicos (Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies – IEEE) of the Spanish Ministry of Defence.

We offer below the first part of the in-depth article El gas de esquisto y la neoestrategia de EE.UU (Shale Gas and the Neo-Strategy of the United States) by Fernando Liborio Soto, which was published on the website of the Instituto Español de Estudios Estratégicos (Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies – IEEE) of the Spanish Ministry of Defence.

We wish to thank the IEEE for kindly allowing us to publish this article and, in particular, its deputy-director, the Spanish Navy Captain, D. Ignacio García Sánchez, for his help in making this possible.

Next week, we shall publish the second and final part of the article.


Fernando Liborio Soto Sáez *




After the end of the Second World War, the United States (US) focused its geostrategic efforts on Europe, to the detriment of the Pacific region. Following the break-up of the Soviet Bloc, the United States is seeking to redefine its strategy in the Pacific where a potentially powerful competitor has appeared in the form of the People’s Republic of China. In order to achieve this, two hurdles must be overcome. First, is the emergence of jihadist terrorism which respects no borders and, second, continuing US dependence on Arab oil. Nonetheless, the decline of Al Qaeda and the withdrawal of the ISAF from Afghanistan, together with the Arab Spring, have brought about a change of setting for jihadist terrorism, now more towards the Maghreb-Sahel strip. Since Europe is the closest western region, the US could be spared some of the problems in this regard, although this would require a redefinition of some aspects of NATO. Then again, the US dependence on Arab oil might be affected as a result of findings recently published by the International Energy Agency, which could reorient its strategy towards the Pacific. However, if the reiterated hypotheses in the report are borne out, the possible repercussions in the Middle East, where Israel is America’s chief ally, could stand in the way of the American neo-strategy.


The driving force of evolution and progress, oil has always appeared as a determinant factor in the major conflicts of the twentieth century. Today, the power of attraction of this black gold has remained intact and, despite some fears as to the maintenance of world production, the International Energy Agency (IEA), far from dampening down the crude oil fuelled flame, has again opened up the spigots, thus giving the US new impetus in its move towards the Pacific. The possibility that the US might be situated in the lead with regard to control of the hydrocarbons market has unquestionably given new impetus to its recent strategy in the Pacific where the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is advancing as the emerging power with the greatest potential for being a serious competitor for the US in its bid to take over world leadership.

However, what would amount to a new order in the geo-economic domain would also bring in its wake an uncertain situation in other zones of the planet, for example certain areas of the Middle East whose stability depends, among other factors, on being able to maintain their share of the crude oil market. If these quotas underwent any substantial change, the social situation in the countries of the zone could be changed by the thrust of Islamism. In such an event Israel would be the most affected country. Furthermore, the spread of instability towards the Sahel in North Africa, where countries like France, Italy and Spain have commercial interests, would have repercussions in the European Union. Hence, after the collapse of the former Soviet bloc, and in an intercommunicated world where borders between countries seem to dissolve on the pages of old atlases, the shift of the US towards the Pacific means that Europe would have to take on responsibility for managing expansionist jihadism in nearby North Africa, which has tenuous borders as far as some of today’s Islamist leaders are concerned.

Accordingly, in its strategic move towards the Pacific, the US should bear in mind not only the potential of shale gas and the significance of the new geostrategic scenario in the this area, but also such collateral factors as the situation of the struggle against Islamist terrorism after the ISAF withdrawal from Afghanistan; a post-Afghanistan NATO; Israel’s * relations with the US administration; and, finally, the lessons learned from history.


From the time when the first oil gusher appeared in Pennsylvania (US) in 1861 through to the present-day practice of fracking, the history of hydrocarbon exploitation has gone through a series of phases in which the hegemony of American companies established the framework from the beginning.[1] However, after the Second World War, the United States lost its influence over Middle East crude oil when the Arab world began to prevail in the oil market in the 1970s.

Nonetheless, according to the latest IEA report, World Energy Outlook 2012 [2], this situation could change. The report predicts that, “By around 2020, the United States is projected to become the largest global oil producer (overtaking Saudi Arabia until the mid-2020s) and starts to see the impact of new fuel-efficiency measures in transport”, adding that America could become a “net oil exporter around 2030”. In addition, the report considers that, “The net increase in global oil production is driven entirely by unconventional oil”, otherwise known as shale gas. (See Figure 1 [3])


Fig. 1.- Cuencas estimadas de shale gas en 32 países.
Fig. 1. Estimated shale gas basins in 32 countries.

The energy potential of shale gas has been known for some decades, although its exploitation only became a workable possibility a scant ten years ago. This is a hydrocarbon which is “dissolved” and trapped within shale formations at depths of more than 3,000 metres, where the pressure contributes towards forcing the spread of the gas within the rock itself, caught in tiny pockets. In the extraction process, the gas must be freed so that it will collect in wells, and this involves fracturing the rock. In order to achieve this, a technique called “fracking” or hydraulic fracturing is used in combination with horizontal drilling. In its early days, this procedure was deemed to be very expensive but, thanks to technical progress and reduced costs, it can now be applied as a process consisting of the high-pressure injection of water into rock formations at depths of between 3,000 and 3,500 metres, causing small fractures which free the gas. (Fig. 2)


Fig. 2. Shale gas is found trapped in rock formations at great depths.
Fig. 2. Shale gas is found trapped in rock formations at great depths.

Protests by certain social sectors, arguing that fracking will have dire environmental consequences due to contamination of aquifers, a high water consumption and the risk of seismic movements, have been countered by other sources, for example the Spanish Royal Academy of Engineering, which states that “it is estimated that, without hydraulic fracturing, 80% of the production of unconventional gas would not exist”. [4]

While not exempt of controversy as a result of the risks it involves, fracking could mean a new advance in crude oil production. As the conclusions of the aforementioned IEA study suggest and in view of the existing shale gas basins in the US and Canada (both members of the OECD and sharing one of the planet’s biggest shale gas reserves), it could help to make President Nixon’s dream of energy self-sufficiency for the United States [5] come true. With good reason, Daniel Yergin, author of Historia de petróleo, states that, at present, fracking accounts for thirty per cent of gas production in the United States and it is envisaged that it could be exported in about two years. Similarly, the oil company BP predicts that the US will be self-sufficient by 2030.

For Faith Birol, chief economist at the IEA, “the foundations of the global energy system are shifting”.

Although the consulting firm Deloitte noted in its study “Oil and Gas Reality Check 2012” that shale gas production is still far from being crucial, the oil companies exploring the reserves of this resource are quite rightly adding more weight to the western side of the balance when they take note of the presence of oil reserves in the OECD countries since political stability is a factor that attracts investors who are wary of countries in the Middle East and North Africa which are affected by increasing instability within their borders. Hence, a potential decrease in western investment would further escalate a possible situation of socioeconomic instability.


Fig. 3. Shale gas basins in the United States.
Fig. 3. Shale gas basins in the United States.

However, even if the neo-strategy is given new momentum by the fact that the US shares one of the planet’s biggest shale gas reserves (see Fig. 3) [6], China will strive to keep its Arab crude oil market by means of shipping routes. This means that both countries will need to be very attentive to their freedom of movement and action in the new scenario: the Pacific Ocean.

Fernando Liborio Soto Sáez *

Brigada de Artillería


Keep reading (Part Two).




[1] YERGIN, Daniel (1992) LA HISTORIA DEL PETRÓLEO. “En las décadas de 1870 y 1880, la mitad de la producción americana se destinaba a la exportación, representando el queroseno un 25% del total de las exportaciones”.


[3] EIA World Shale Gas Resources:*Technically recoverable reserves. Source: US DOE/EIA’s ‘World Shale Gas Resources: An Initial Assessment of 14 Regions Outside the United States’ published April 5, 2011.

[4] LUNA SIERRA, Emilio y GARCÍA SAN MIGUEL, Alberto Aparicio. Ingenieros de Minas. “Situación actual y perspectivas de los hidrocarburos no convencionales”. Presentación. Real Academia de Ingeniería. Disponible en: http://www.shalegasespana.es/es/index.php/prensa/blog/entry/el-fracking-visto-por-la-real-academia-de-ingenieria.

[5] NIXON Richard: «Address on the State of the Union Delivered Before a Joint Session of the Congress». January 30, 1974. “Let this be our national goal: At the end of this decade, in the year 1980, the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need…”.

[6] Fuente: http://www.getmoneyenergy.com/2010/01/investing-in-shale-gas-pros-cons-racking

[*] NOTE: The ideas expressed in Documentos de Opinión are the responsibility of authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IEEE or the Ministry of Defence.