With OPEC’s 2016 World Oil Outlook now grimly forecasting that peak oil demand could become a reality in just over a decade, and natural gas and renewables chomping at the bit to cannibalize commodity market growth, it may be good for the environment, but the trade-off will be global instability on a catastrophic level.
The dynamics of the rush to adopt natural gas and renewable energies - launched by the landmark climate change agreement signed in Paris last year – was about protecting our planet. But without an effective back-up plan, resource-cursed nations such as Venezuela, Libya, Nigeria and Iraq—among others—will not survive this evolution and economic destabilization and sociopolitical instability would irrevocably change the geopolitical landscape. Destitution spells disaster in this scenario.
Weaning off ‘Black Gold’? Not in our Lifetime, and not Without Repercussions
Hundreds of trillions of dollars have been spent worldwide over the past century to develop technologies for the safe transport and use of “black gold,” which, in turn has built energy-driven economies on practically every single continent, aside from Antarctica.
Venezuela, Libya, Nigeria and Iraq are the first nations that come to mind when compiling a list of oil-dependent states, mostly because of their current plights caused by the two-year oil price crisis, as well as the political instability, civil war, domestic militancy and terrorism threats that each country faces, respectively.
Chronically low prices compromise the ability of oil-addicted economies to tackle domestic unrest, which was brought about by stinted revenues in the first place.
If OPEC’s predictions on the imminent-ness of peak oil prove to be true, underdeveloped producers that have not yet planned for a fossil fuel-free world will inevitably face sociopolitical collapse. As oil demand spirals downward, the world’s major exporters are expected to ramp up output in order to profit as much as possible before the commodity becomes a relic of the past.
And, as we know from the state of current markets, the bigger the glut, the sadder the prices.
The four countries mentioned earlier, along with Algeria, represent the nations most vulnerable to the global abandonment of oil. But even Mexico, which has invited public and private actors to set up a sophisticated governmental hedge against depressed prices for the next year, will see its economy falter when there’s no market left to hedge.
Sovereign Wealth Fund or Bust
The Gulf nations have amassed a vast amount of fuel wealth over the past few decades. Wielding their financial-savvy as an economic shield, the countries have stored the revenues in sovereign wealth funds that invest internationally, paving the way for post-oil revenue streams. This starkly contrasts with the situation in Venezuela and Nigeria, both of which are on the hunt for billions in lost—as in nowhere to be found—profits.
On the other end of the spectrum, European producers—especially Norway and France, as well as the United States and Canada—enjoy diversified economies that subsidize fossil fuel, but do not play a direct role in its extraction or distribution. In this group of states, it is the private companies that weather the bulk of the losses in a market downturn.
Of course, these governments must still provide the unemployment benefits entitled to workers who are fired during a downturn, and budget specialists must maintain a plan to navigate lower tax revenues from domestic oil majors, but overall, their public sectors remain far more insulated from the volatilities of the oil sector than those nations with mammoth nationalized firms.
These are just the domestic implications of the end of the oil era. Foreign policies, especially of the world’s biggest superpowers, have long revolved around energy needs.
Balances of Power, Oil Friends and Foes
Control over oil has shaped major aspects of the United States’ relationship with Russia and the Arab World. The OPEC-led Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 - protesting the sale of arms to Israeli military forces by Western states - caused massive fuel shortages in the U.S., leading Congress to ban the export of domestically produced oil. The prohibition ended just last year, four decades later.
Still, the U.S. elects to import oil from the bloc’s de facto leader, Saudi Arabia, rather than turn to its eternal foe, Russia. Cold War anxieties from the 1980s - fresher in the minds of the American electorate than the Arab-Israeli wars of the 60s and 70s - steer leaders away from fuel trades with President Vladimir Putin.
Europe has been seeking new natural gas partners after Russia, which provides the continent with a quarter of its gas supplies, seized Crimea and supported the oppressive Syrian government.
Donald Trump’s selection as U.S. president-elect could change the country’s dynamic with Russia. Trump has famously praised Putin for his “leadership,” but it’s far too soon to measure the wildcard’s willingness to pursue stronger ties with Russia.
Can Natural Gas Save the Vulnerable?
For many nations, the next big environmental step after oil is natural gas. When we compare a list of countries with the largest proven oil reserves with the same list for natural gas deposits, a bunch of the same countries appear in the highest positions, albeit in a different order.
Venezuela boasts the largest oil reserves in the world, but it stands in eighth place on the natural gas list. Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran and Nigeria take positions in the top 10 for both commodities as well.
The overlap in major players in the oil and natural gas markets says there will certainly be some continuation as demand shifts from one commodity to another, even as Canada, Libya and Iraq will find themselves as losers longer-term, in the absence of a push for renewables (the trio is included in the oil top 10, but disappears in the natural gas list).
Turkmenistan will see new prominence as natural gas gains popularity. As the only country not to appear on in the top 20 positions of the oil reserves list, but present at 4th place in the gas deposits list, the central Asian nation is due for more geopolitical love in the coming decades.
The former Soviet republic currently exports two-thirds of its gas to Russia’s Gazprom.
Turkmenistan’s reserves will add to Russia’s international political leverage as countries all over the world develop the infrastructure to support liquefied natural gas in their oil-based economies.
As the 103 countries that have ratified the United Nations-led change agreement meet at the COP22 conference in Marrakesh this week, the world inches closer to making a carbon-neutral world possible, but careful consideration of the geopolitical ramifications should also be made.
The domestically fragile oil producers - which more closely resemble an oil-soaked house of cards than stable nations - will need major economic attention as renewables and natural gas become the new energy standard.
By Zainab Calcuttawala for Oilprice.com
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