Europe left behind as shale shock drives America’s industrial resurgence
The revival of the chemical industry is a spin-off from the greater drama of America’s energy rebound, though a very big one. As many readers will have seen, the US energy department said last week that the country will produce 11.4m barrels a day (b/d) of oil, biofuels, and liquid hydrocarbons next year, almost as much as Saudi Arabia.
This is largely due to hydraulic fracturing - blasting rock with water jets - to extract shale gas and oil, though solar power and onshore wind are playing their part.
Europe is going in the opposite direction, drifting towards energy suicide. So is Japan as it shuts down its nuclear industry after the Fukushima disaster. China is more hard-headed, as it needs to be. The country is adding 20m cars a year. Chinese oil imports are rising by an extra 0.5m b/d annually.
As of last week, US natural gas prices were roughly one third of European levels. The German chemicals group BASF said it had become impossible to match the US on production costs.
Asia is facing an even greater handicap as Japan soaks up supply of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to offset the closure of its nuclear power stations. Prices on the Pacific rim are near $15 per million British thermal units (BTU), compared to $3 in the US.
The US cost of ethane - the raw material for polymers and much of what we use - has collapsed by 70pc since 2008. It is why Exxon and Westlake Chemical are building new ethane plants in America, while loss-making Mitsubishi is closing its unit in Japan, and Mitsui may follow soon. Credit Suisse said ethane production is barely viable in Japan, Korea or Taiwan.
The gas differential with Europe and Asia will narrow gradually over time but there is no genuine global market for gas. Prices are local, dictated by pipelines. In Europe’s case they are dictated by Vladimir Putin’s Gazprom. Germany imports 36pc of its gas from Russia. Dependency rises to 48pc for Poland, 60pc for Hungary, 98pc for Slovakia, and 100pc for the Baltics.
While LNG helps plug shortages, it requires shipping at minus 116 degrees and at great expense in molybdenum alloy hulls. It then needs an elaborate infrastructure at the docking port.
Shale has made the US self-sufficient in gas almost overnight. The new twist of course is shale oil. Output has jumped to 2m b/d from almost nothing eight years ago. The Bakken field in North Dakota is twice as big as the conventional Prudhoe Bay field in Alaska.
America produced 81pc of its total energy needs in the first six months of this year, the highest since 1991. Citigroup thinks US ouput of crude and eqivalents will top 15.6m b/d by 2020, adding up to 3.6m jobs through multiplier effects. North America as a whole will reach 27m b/d - with Canada’s oil sands and Mexico’s deepwater fields - making the region a "new Middle East".
The implications are momentous. America will no longer need a single drop of oil from the Islamic world. The strategic burden will fall on Europe, which is meekly disarming itself to meet Wolfgang Schauble's austerity targets. Russia and China will be pleased to help.
What is staggering is the near total failure of Europe’s leaders to face up to this new world order, or to prepare for their energy crunch ahead. They have spent the last decade wrangling over treaties that nobody wants, endlessly tinkering with institutional structures, and ultimately holding 22 summits to "save" EMU, largely oblivious to the bigger danger ahead.
Germany is to shut down its nuclear plants by 2022, reluctant to admit that this can be replaced only by coal - and even then with great difficulty. It is opting instead for the romantic quest of a politically-correct grid. The goal is to raise the share of renewables from 20pc to 35pc by 2020 at a cost of €200bn, and then to green supremacy by mid-decade for another €600bn.
Germany seems to think it can power Europe’s foremost industrial machine from off-shore wind in the Baltic, without the high-voltage wires running from North to South yet built or on track to be built. "It is a religion, not a policy," said one German official privately, warning that his country is already "very near blackouts". He fears an almighty national disaster.
"There is huge fear about the energy switch," said Volker Treier from the German Chambers of Industry. "We have no realistic plan to replace nuclear power. Electricity costs are already very high. Everybody is complaining about this."
The risk is that Germany will hit its aging crunch later this decade with no viable power system in place, having discovered that the contingent liabilities of EMU rescues are real liabilities - and bigger than German citizens were led to believe. You could scarcely devise a more certain way to ruin a nation. My sympathies to German friends watching this unfold with horror.
France has shale but has imposed a drilling moratorium It will shut down a nuclear plant for good measure to appease the Greens. Italy has banned nuclear power, yet has little else.
Britain has been sauntering slowly towards a debacle for nearly fifteen years. Eight coal plants are to close by 2015 as they burn up their EU carbon allowances. Much of the UK’s nuclear industry is on its last legs. No new plant has yet been commissioned.
What we have is a very big gamble on off-shore wind, a very long way from where most people live. It will supposedly supply 17pc of UK electricity by 2020, equal to all other off-shore wind projects in the world combined. Let us pray that it works.
As the years recede from the credit crash of 2008, it is becoming clearer that America suffered less damage than supposed. The Great Recession was certainly a shock. The debt-load is frightening, but the US can at least hope to outgrow that debt.
What is remarkable is that Euroland is not cutting its combined public and private sector debt any faster than the US - as a share of GDP - by asphyxiating its economy. It is doing so more slowly. That is the difference between growth and recession.
They look only at public debt in Euroland, fixated myopically on one variable, ignoring the lessons of balance sheet recessions. Such is policy architecture of Europe.
Four years on we can seen that the epicentre of destruction has in reality been right here in the Old World. We may look back and realize that the last decade - the Merkel decade, the EMU distraction decade, and in its way the Brown decade - was the turning point when Europe finally lost its global footing.