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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Balancing commercial and regulatory considerations
  4. Diverse patterns of technology dissemination
  5. International applications of Mitchell's approach to competition
  6. A new approach to global energy policy
  7. Conclusions
  8. References
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. Biography

A largely open-source approach to energy technology has been a core catalyst of the transformation that has begun to reshape global markets in recent years. Reflecting the unpredictable characteristics of technological innovation, these changes have had an associated impact on theories that had long served as an accepted framework for the energy industry. Similar to the revolution seen on the supply side of natural gas markets over the past decade, somewhat analogous developments are now arising on the demand side of the equation. Natural gas offers significant advantages relative to current energy consumption given its lower global carbon emissions and decrease in local pollution. By shifting policy focus towards a cleaner and abundant global resource, natural gas offers a means of achieving significant incremental capacity that has made a material impact on meeting future energy requirements while also incrementally improving the environment.

Policy Implications
  • Cooperative approaches that incentivize natural gas technology sharing have created a means of incrementally addressing climate change while meeting projected demand.
  • With China, the US, the EU and Russia accounting for the majority of world energy consumption, focused policy cooperation offers a practical means for resolving environmental, security and resource challenges.
  • As the US and Russia remain the world natural gas leaders, improved cooperation in the private sector has begun to establish principal mechanisms for mutually beneficial development.
  • International investment partnerships between governments, state owned enterprises and private corporations have fostered continued technological innovation and infrastructure development.

In recent decades, a few key innovators have pioneered and leveraged certain new technologies in ways that have helped to redefine the energy sector worldwide. In addition to the more immediate impact on global energy markets driven by changing energy production trends in North America, the dispersion of related technologies to diverse new geographies has gradually begun to emerge. Although the US has maintained a lead in some of the most important energy technology innovations over the past several decades, the open-source approach taken with many of these fundamental techniques have served as a core catalyst of this global transformation.

One of the most dramatic changes in recent history began in a geological formation known as the Barnett Shale near Fort Worth, Texas throughout the 1980s. In the surrounding counties, George P. Mitchell initiated the combined use of complementary techniques in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling following a series of trial and error attempts throughout that decade (Kuchin, 2001). In doing so, Mitchell Energy & Development Corporation set the stage for a series of revolutionary changes that would eventually lead to a fundamental reconfiguration of the US energy industry. The impact would serve as a catalyst for the country's economy in subsequent years (Kolb, 2013; Morris, 2013; Yergin, 2011).

In a series of events that reflect the broader economic characteristics inherent in the energy industry given its capital intensive nature, a significant increase in production following these technological innovations did not fully materialize until natural gas prices began to increase significantly in 2004 and 2005 as seen in Figure 1. While most conventional categories of gas production have continued to decrease in the US since 2003, shale gas showed dramatic increases following the price spike of these years. The greater costs associated with these techniques eventually became profitable in this higher market price environment, thereby spurring these transformational developments.

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Figure 1. US natural gas price and production by source, 2002–2012.

Source: US Energy Information Agency, 2012.

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Geotechnology in the oil and gas sector has continuously advanced through a process of improvement stretching back to the origins of the industry in the 19th century (Frehner, 2011). However, the innovations pioneered by Mitchell and other developers in the shale arena have essentially redefined the supply side of the energy equation in the past several decades. Building upon the technological innovations first used in the extraction of shale gas, similar techniques have been used more recently to access shale oil in subsequent years. By increasing the production of lower emission natural gas, shale production trends have opened new opportunities to fundamentally change elements of the future environmental profile of the world in part through synergies with other cleaner fuel sources (Channel et al. 2013; Schmandt, 2010).

Despite the significant environmental advantages that the use of natural gas brings relative to coal, oil and related hydrocarbon products, environmental analyses and temporary restrictions are currently seen in the US. As the early adopter of these technologies and the original source of these breakthroughs, the outcome of these debates is expected to impact the external thinking of other countries that may pursue related developments (Moniz et al. 2011; Morse et al. 2013).

The steep change across a diverse array of new basins has been dramatic. Unexpectedly, recent developments in geology, a field of study that dates back to ancient Greece, transformed one of the oldest sciences into one of the most dramatic sources of change across the world economy. The potential to eventually mirror these developments across other geologic basins is illustrated in recent estimates by the US Energy Information Agency shown in Figure 2 below. Reflecting on the unpredictable characteristics of technological innovation, these resource changes had a related impact on theories that had long served as an accepted framework for the energy industry. Although the implications are debated, peak oil was one concept in the literature that may be significantly redefined in the new post-shale environment (Speth, 2012).

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Figure 2. Top ten countries with technically recoverable shale gas resources.

Source: US Energy Information Agency, 2013.

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China has taken significant steps towards wind power and other alternative energy technologies (Lewis, 2012). However, the scale of its economy and its increasing level of energy demand have incentivized the country to continue developing technological expertise in fossil fuels as has been similarly seen in most states. Related investments by Chinese national oil companies across a diverse range of countries including Canada and the US have stood as a primary means of building this resource base as well as developing related technological expertise. Amongst these potential development opportunities, natural gas is estimated to balance the lowest environmental impact with the greatest capacity to meet this expected growing demand.

Amidst these changes across the energy sector, a significant reassessment of political risk has occurred in parallel. In a North American context and from the perspective of decision makers in Beijing, relative investment opportunities in Canada and the US are often viewed as having similar corporate governance characteristics and levels of technical sophistication. However, in a dramatic change in perspective, the distinguishing characteristic for decision makers in China is often a perception of relatively greater levels of ‘political risk’ in the US. This is often mentioned in reference to the unpredictable political tactics observed in Washington and associated public relations battles. Although among the most notable and dramatic early examples was the failed acquisition of Unocal by China National Offshore Oil Corporation in 2005, similar situations have been seen across Canada and other developed nations (Shambaugh, 2013).

Similar to the revolution seen on the supply side of natural gas markets over the past decade, somewhat analogous developments are now arising on the demand side of the equation. A growing driver has been regulatory steps in the US and other OECD countries to address the higher emissions associated with coal and oil. Rudel has suggested a framework that divides the world into defensive environmentalists concerned about local problems and altruistic environmentalists that express interest in alleviating global problems (Rudel, 2013). For each of these groups, natural gas has created significant advantages relative to recent global energy consumption given its lower carbon emissions and decrease in associated local pollution.

The early innovator Henry Ford changed the automotive industry by designing commercial frameworks that favored massive development and adoption of gasoline (Greenleaf, 2011; Wells, 2013). Similar to the ways in which Ford overturned the patent of George Selden and in turn spurred a massive increase in production across the automotive industry, Mitchell decided to completely forego such restrictive mechanisms on the supply side of natural gas markets. While still respecting intellectual property, cooperative frameworks in the natural gas vehicle market may prove equally helpful. In essence, the open-source approach George Mitchell took to hydraulic fracturing by sharing the technology widely played a critical role in shaping the direction of the industry and accelerating the adoption of these new techniques.

Despite the significant advances seen in the natural gas sector over the past decade, future technology breakthroughs have the potential to again redefine global energy markets in the years to come. One possible example is the geothermal heat pump (GHP) that directs heat from or to the ground as a means of heating or cooling buildings. According to estimates by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the introduction of 100,000 GHP units has the potential to decrease carbon emissions by approximately 1.1 million tons over 20 years (Andrews and Jelley, 2013). Although future technology breakthroughs may again redefine the economic equation, the requirement for natural gas or other fossil fuels to power the pumps used in most GHP units stands as an example of the deep interconnection between many diverse energy sources.

Balancing commercial and regulatory considerations

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Balancing commercial and regulatory considerations
  4. Diverse patterns of technology dissemination
  5. International applications of Mitchell's approach to competition
  6. A new approach to global energy policy
  7. Conclusions
  8. References
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. Biography

Low prices created by resources developed through new technologies have also had a dramatic impact on markets as previously seen in Figure 1. In addition to the volatility inherent in pricing, environmental perspectives within countries have continued to evolve leading to changes in regulation. Despite a continued shift towards natural gas vehicles in a growing number of countries, the significant investment required to create the associated infrastructure underscores the importance of mitigating these risks.

Despite these open questions, dramatic initial steps have been taken to spur a quicker transition to these cleaner technologies. In the US, President Obama stated his objective to drive forward further development using re-investment in research as a means of spurring future technological innovations in this (Broder, 2013).

Although some initial work has been done regarding the level of methane emitted from the drilling and production of natural gas wells, the level of analysis remains inconclusive (Alvarez, 2012; Tollefson, 2013). A primary challenge for the natural gas market has related to demand limitations, which in turn leads to significant flaring of natural gas from oil wells. The establishment of new uses for natural gas including transportation and other subsectors can help to incentivize more efficient processes for production and delivery of natural gas resources.

One of the most eagerly awaited studies regarding shale resource development is an analysis by the US EPA regarding the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water. Upon publication of the study's results in late 2014 (US Environmental Protection Agency, 2012), the final report is broadly expected to help resolve remaining uncertainties.

Although significant initial successes have been achieved in the US shale gas arena with dramatic economic and environmental benefits, geologic, regulatory and other differences have led to key market disparities in other countries. This is in many ways similar to trends seen on the state level in the US, where technical characteristics as well as public acceptance have varied across jurisdictions. Given the inconsistency between markets, pricing has also varied significantly thereby leading to further distinctions among countries where such resources exist. In certain ways, the interconnection among markets and the environmental and climate implications carry additional implications. For example, although Europe has decreased its coal usage it has also been linked to an increase of coal consumption in China as a means of supporting European consumption of other products. This example has been noted to carry significant interrelated negative environmental implications (Helm, 2012).

Diverse patterns of technology dissemination

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Balancing commercial and regulatory considerations
  4. Diverse patterns of technology dissemination
  5. International applications of Mitchell's approach to competition
  6. A new approach to global energy policy
  7. Conclusions
  8. References
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. Biography

Goodman and Khanna have noted that the rate of technological change in many aspects of the modern economy have recently tended to double every two years, in line with the prediction of former Intel chairman Gordon Moore in 1965 (Goodman and Khanna, 2013). A range of applied logistic challenges have constrained the energy industry from following a similar pace in core areas of its technological advancement.

Despite dramatic breakthroughs that have been seen in energy technology, the significant scale of the infrastructure and investment required to fully introduce potential changes often can represent a factor that slows the rate of acceptance. Just as George Mitchell led fundamental changes on the supply side, T. Boone Pickens has made similar advances in the area of energy demand through his investments and advocacy of natural gas vehicles as well as other cleaner technologies including wind. As of March 2013, there were approximately 574 compressed natural gas filling stations in the US compared with over 100,000 gasoline stations. In addition to logistic considerations, another key variable remains the cost differential for each respective technology including fuel as well as the incremental price of conversion of natural gas vehicles (del Alamo, 2012; Levi, 2013).

The advances in oil and gas technologies have contributed to negative responses towards solar, wind and other low carbon technologies. In a policy context, this lack of enthusiasm has especially been seen surrounding government subsidies that have often been necessary to make these alternative technologies cost competitive (Bryce, 2013). While the balance may be proactively impacted through reinvestment mechanisms such as the Energy Security Trust proposed in the US despite significant opposition (LaMonica, 2013), it is useful to factor in the climate and other environmental implications when assessing such policy alternatives (Orr, 2012). Just as the shift towards natural gas has led to incremental environmental and economic improvements, further step changes may potentially be achieved in the future, which could overcome some of today's most seemingly insurmountable challenges (Hamilton, 2013). Although the Obama administration has consistently focused on sustainable energy, it shifted the definition considerably as it began its second term in 2013. Using an increasingly broad definition, natural gas was increasingly reclassified and included among the range of clean energy technologies.

Europe, China and the US have continued to maintain high levels of coal and oil consumption as seen in Figure 3. The potential environmental and economic benefit of further shifts towards natural gas consumption offer material opportunities for continued environmental and economic improvements. Despite the significant potential associated with natural gas, the unpredictable nature of geotechnology developments make it exceptionally difficult to accurately predict how current energy supply and consumption trends will evolve in the future. A case in point from recent history is peak oil theory, which was widely believed for many decades but has now been at least temporarily postponed if not fundamentally redefined by the incremental resources uncovered through new shale technologies (Deffeyes, 2008).

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Figure 3. Primary energy consumption by fuel, 2012.

Source: BP, 2013.

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The UK has represented a key case study of the hydraulic fracturing debate outside of the US. Among the most actively pursued opportunities in Europe, initial investments in Poland have proven largely unsuccessful, leading many in the industry to expect a complete exit by most remaining operators in the coming years. Among the top three countries by shale gas reserves, Argentina has been considered as a likely significant future producer although a range of local political debates remain.

Similar open questions surround China given population, water and geologic differences relative to the US. While development has in large part been driven by the private sector in OECD countries, state owned enterprises in China have played more of a leading role in technology adoption. In the early years of these developments, the intersection of public and private enterprises in China's shale arena has been most often seen in investments and constructive cooperation overseas. This has been most prominently seen in the US where each of the top Chinese national oil companies has made material investments often in the interest of gaining know-how. This has often been in exchange for needed capital, which proved especially timely for American companies given the drop in natural gas prices described earlier. While western oil & gas majors have made initial shale investments in mainland China, the early stage of development and the significant influence of state owned enterprises have limited their contributions to date.

International applications of Mitchell's approach to competition

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Balancing commercial and regulatory considerations
  4. Diverse patterns of technology dissemination
  5. International applications of Mitchell's approach to competition
  6. A new approach to global energy policy
  7. Conclusions
  8. References
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. Biography

Geotechnology in the energy sector coupled with the changing shape of wealth worldwide has jointly represented a core instrument which has helped to reshape this industry as well as the broader global economy. Despite significant investments, China has chosen to create significantly looser ties with the Middle East relative to the region's historical relationship with the US. Investment in new technologies has been viewed as a key enabler of these trends and has drawn greater focus on techniques that may potentially be deployed in resource development in mainland China. Here, applying the open-source approach that Mitchell used domestically in an international context has helped to enable countries to shift towards these resources. While elements of the US Department of State's Unconventional Gas Technical Engagement Program can potentially help, applying such initiatives more liberally as opposed to targeting select states have begun to build goodwill across a broader community of nations.

As a core economic consideration, the impact of energy choices on national markets is often consistent across states even if tactics vary. The level of attention and focus on climate change and other environmental impact has shown a higher level of variance. Considered in tandem, the trade offs associated with development impact and environmental protection considerations have varied over time. These changes have often been driven by significant events, as seen in the US following Germany's decision to abandon nuclear power following the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the US in 2012 and severe smog in China in 2013.

A new approach to global energy policy

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Balancing commercial and regulatory considerations
  4. Diverse patterns of technology dissemination
  5. International applications of Mitchell's approach to competition
  6. A new approach to global energy policy
  7. Conclusions
  8. References
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. Biography

Building upon trends in the US, cooperative approaches to natural gas that incentivize further sharing of related technologies have emerged as the most readily achievable means of addressing climate change. By focusing on a resource with lower carbon and other hazardous emissions, natural gas has offered energy consumers a means of achieving significant capacity which can make a material impact on meeting future energy requirements while also incrementally improving the environment.

As seen in Figure 4 below, China, the US, the EU and Russia account for over half of the world's total primary energy consumption. While a frequent excuse for not addressing climate change is that individual powers cannot resolve the problem, these four powers collectively represent a majority voice in this debate and can have a material impact on future trends.

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Figure 4. Primary energy consumption, 2012 (includes oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear, hydroelectricity and renewables).

Source: BP, 2013.

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In many ways, policy makers have shown signs of a shift towards supporting natural gas technologies in the interest of collectively addressing these problems. The US and Russia remain the world leaders and represented close to 40 per cent of global production in 2012 (Figure 5). Driven in large part by private sector investment, joint efforts towards cooperation in the technology sphere have begun to carry the dual benefit of strengthening the global natural gas market and improving the environment through lower emissions.

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Figure 5. Natural gas production by the world's two leading suppliers: US and Russia, 2003–2012 (billion cubic feet per day).

Source: BP, 2013.

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Goldthau has argued that, ‘The next paradigm shift, which is currently in the making, will likely not be driven by established energy powers – the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries – but to a large extent by the emerging ones, notably in developing Asia.’ (Goldthau, 2012). Increasingly interdependent approaches have led to less of a zero sum game, making such legacy tendencies towards one side maintaining a dominant role less likely to be applicable. More consistent with the philosophy and approach of Asian powers is a tendency to be less confrontational (Steinfeld, 2010).

The history of relations between western governments and businesses has shown the plague of significant inefficiencies across diverse segments of the energy sector (Grossman, 2013). With fiscal constraints serving as a limitation on future incentives, cooperative approaches particularly among private sector entities have demonstrated the potential for continued progress. As seen in the experience of George Mitchell, government policies can play a critical role in promoting research and development as well as helping new technologies to reach a tipping point. A continued focus on mitigating climate change which includes a broader definition of clean technologies including natural gas has helped to assist in this transition (Zindler et al. 2013).

Efforts to continue improving technological innovation have been aided through further international investment partnership arrangements including governments, state owned enterprises and private corporations. Continued efforts to seek greater partnership between government and business have helped new technologies achieve the critical mass that is essential to reach a tipping point for market acceptance. The race between natural gas vehicles and battery technologies to gain ground relative to oil based fuels is among the most recent examples.

Conclusions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Balancing commercial and regulatory considerations
  4. Diverse patterns of technology dissemination
  5. International applications of Mitchell's approach to competition
  6. A new approach to global energy policy
  7. Conclusions
  8. References
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. Biography

As has been seen across the supply and demand side of energy markets in recent decades most particularly in the natural gas sector, the balance of innovation often does in fact closely relate to the balance of power. Whereas technological innovations have played a key role in opening new and cleaner resources to national and global markets, central state authorities have also helped in enabling their adoption.

In parallel to the balance between innovation and economic power, the types of investments being made across emerging sectors have similarly represented a balance between infrastructure investments and new technologies. Whereas China has often achieved a lead in these capabilities, the west remains more of a force on the introduction of emerging technologies. Evolving relationships that continue to efficiently leverage each side's relative strengths have displayed evidence of becoming a key foundation for future cooperation and partnership. As majority stakeholders in future environmental and climate trends with a growing array of technologically feasible alternatives, the potential opportunities as well as the risk factors have never been greater.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Balancing commercial and regulatory considerations
  4. Diverse patterns of technology dissemination
  5. International applications of Mitchell's approach to competition
  6. A new approach to global energy policy
  7. Conclusions
  8. References
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. Biography
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Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Balancing commercial and regulatory considerations
  4. Diverse patterns of technology dissemination
  5. International applications of Mitchell's approach to competition
  6. A new approach to global energy policy
  7. Conclusions
  8. References
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. Biography

Some of the core ideas developed in this article would not have been possible without the benefit of extensive discussions with George P. Mitchell and T. Boone Pickens from 2011 to 2012. I am very grateful for their time and support.

Biography

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Balancing commercial and regulatory considerations
  4. Diverse patterns of technology dissemination
  5. International applications of Mitchell's approach to competition
  6. A new approach to global energy policy
  7. Conclusions
  8. References
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. Biography
  • Carter W. Page, Founder and Managing Partner of Global Energy Capital LLC, an Adjunct Associate Professor at New York University's Center for Global Affairs and Energy Fellow at the Center for National Policy in Washington.