The year 2014 will be remembered for an unprecedented juxtaposition of events. Two oil-producing countries in the Middle East were in a state of crisis. Relations between the West and Russia slumped to a new Cold War low. And oil prices have slumped, to $66 a barrel for Brent Crude this morning, half its recent peak. This didn’t used to happen. The modern history of oil prices is characterised by a series of spikes, each one coinciding with a crisis in the Middle East. It is a mark of how US shale gas and oil production has changed the oil market – and thus the prospects for the global economy.
Never has a theory collapsed so quickly as Peak Oil, the idea that fossil fuel prices would rise inexorably as supply failed to keep track of demand. Even as late as 2011 the US had a trade deficit in oil and gas of $354 billion. In a year’s time the US will begin to export liquefied natural gas (LNG). It is expected to become a net exporter of energy in 2018/19.
So quickly have oil and gas fallen that it is beginning to question one of the assumptions made just a few months ago: that the UK could look forward to a bonanza in shale gas production, once the issue of Nimbyism could be overcome. Now, it looks as if we may have missed the boat, for now. According to Dr Aldo Flores-Quiroga, secretary-general of the International Energy Forum, the shale gas boom in the US has been a victim of its own success, with gas producers struggling to make money. Shale gas may transform Britain’s energy economy, and undermine even further the economics of renewables, but at the moment it is more likely to be LNG from the US.