As American President Joe Biden seeks to capitalise on the Ukraine crisis, to institute a radical energy pivot by isolating Russia, and become Europe’s principal supplier of oil and gas, part three of this series delves into the details of this pivot, and the irony of it.
During the run up to the 2020 presidential elections in America, Biden’s Democratic Party had tied itself up in knots on the issue of oil and gas production from tight sands (colloquially called ‘shale oil’ and ‘shale gas’).
‘Fracking’, an integral part of drilling and completing shale oil wells, was decried as a vile practice which was destined to either poison or deplete the water table. The rhetoric was often apocalyptic.
Yet, at the same time, the Democrats were careful not to push beyond a point, because they well understood the centrality of shale oil and shale gas to both the American economy, and its geopolitical heft.
This waffling ambiguity made the Democrats a frequent target of Donald Trump’s broadsides. The New York Times called Trump’s October 2020 attack on Biden’s nebulous position, on fracking, a ‘Hail Mary’ pass (an American football term meaning a long pass made in desperation with a very small chance of success); but having to report Trump’s attack also meant, indirectly, that he had been on target.
Being against shale oil without being against shale oil, or, in other words, how to be green without being green, was hypocrisy of the highest standards, which Delhi’s Chief Minister would have been rightly proud of.
The Democrats eventually triumphed only because fracking ended up being less of an electoral issue than observers expected, and because such patent duplicity fell by the wayside under a furious anti-Trump campaign filled with divisive hatred.
And yet, the truth is that the American economy experienced its best growth in ages between early 2017 and early 2020, because of the fillip it received from activity in the American oil patch. This is when American petroleum production and exports started to soar.
As the chart below shows, American crude oil exports were fairly low until 2016 – about half a million barrels a day, the bulk of which went to Canada.
But Trump realised that producing and exporting oil was a perfect way to tackle two issues simultaneously – getting the economy revving, while slashing America’s notoriously huge trade deficits with most of the world.
As a result, investments in the American oil patch rose to heady levels, as did oil and gas production. Now, there were limits to how much of this extra crude, mainly from tight sands, could be used domestically, because most American refineries were built to handle foreign crude of different varieties.
So, Trump’s objective was to export this extra oil. The plan worked. From half a million barrels a day in late 2016, crude oil exports zoomed to over 3.5 million. The chart above shows how the volumes grew – over 700 per cent in three years.
Two major markets he tapped were China and India. The growth in American crude oil exports to both countries is shown in the chart below.
The Chinese were the first to succumb to Trump’s pressure. Within weeks of his win in November 2016, they started lifting American crude in increasingly larger volumes (blue curve). Offtake wasn’t steady, and there were wild fluctuations, but these can be put down more to Chinese limitations in refining this sort of crude, rather than efforts by the Chinese to prevent their trade surplus with America from going down. Also, a decline in imports from early 2020 marks the impact of the pandemic.
Next in line were the Indians. They took their time, which is why Trump held off from visiting India till so late in his term, but eventually, crude offtakes started to climb. From next to nothing, Indian imports of American crude (orange curve) rose in mid-2018 to a quarter of a million barrels a day. It wasn’t much by Indian consumption levels (hardly 5 per cent), but a start was made.
But the big breakthrough was to Europe (and South Korea), including, believe it or not, to Norway! Bit by bit, month on month, exports to Europe climbed, till the volumes to the principal consumers alone, approached a steady one million barrels a day. Look at the chart below:
See how European imports of crude oil rose, from hardly anything before Trump took over, to what it was when he demitted office in early 2021? While exports to Europe did dip during the Wuhan virus pandemic, they have recovered in the past six months. This is how dramatic a move Trump set in motion, within months of winning the US presidential elections in November 2016.
Now jump to April 2022. Trump is nowhere in the picture. Biden is president. Russia has invaded Ukraine. Putin is the new baddie. Europe vows to stop buying oil, gas or coal from the Russians. Their energy needs will now apparently be met by America. OPEC and the Russians can go sell their oil or gas elsewhere.
It is the rupture of the century, engineered with purpose (explained in words in Part-1, here, and in numbers in Part-2, here). The European prize is substantial: 5-6 million barrels of oil a day, plus many trillion cubic feet of gas a year. Will it work?
It is doubtful if Biden will be able to swing his latest gamble, of becoming Europe’s primary energy supplier, for a host of reasons enumerated in Part-2. But here’s the concluding irony: the only way Biden can even hope to be successful, is by junking his party’s beloved green, anti-oil rhetoric, and by aping Donald Trump.
How that plays out only, time, and the American mid-term elections later this year, will tell.
All data from US Energy Information Administration website.
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