Why you should care

Maybe the U.S. and Europe can turn Russia’s “gas weapon” back on itself.

Vladimir Putin has been having an iffy year. His not-so-secret military adventure in Ukraine has gotten bogged down in an ugly stalemate. Thanks to Western sanctions and falling oil prices, the Russian economy is tanking. And now there’s a new conundrum for the shirtless wonder to tackle — one that’s trapped in subterranean rock formations along the Eastern U.S.

What’s trapped there is a bunch of natural gas, which, thanks to fracking, has created an unprecedented boom in America’s gas supplies. Now some of the excess may be heading for the first time to Europe, where Russia has been a dominant supplier. (Insert GIF of Putin cursing, “Oh, frack.”) If it does, experts say, cheap U.S. supplies could undercut Russian gas in price by as much as 40 percent, hitting Russia’s treasury while also stiffening Europe’s backbone should Russia ever threaten to cut off its gas.

Indeed, there’s enough gas getting fracked to shift the balance of power, potentially restoring some U.S. clout over global energy prices with geopolitical impact. American influence likely won’t be huge, but even the ability to nudge natural-gas markets would be a big step away from decades of learned energy helplessness. Already, with its shale fields doing so strongly, the U.S. has enough gas to supply Canada and Mexico via pipelines. Liquefied natural gas, or LNG, exports from both the U.S. and Australia will produce a gas glut by 2020 if current projections hold — possibly even sooner.

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With the U.S. as a potential source of gas, Russia has less leverage with a once-dependent Europe.

Source Shepard Sherbell/Corbis

Russia, meanwhile, faces erosion of its stealth gas monopoly in Europe, having inadvertently set the stage for its own comeuppance the way monopolists often do. Its state-owned gas behemoth Gazprom has long asked for top dollar in the form of gas contracts linked to oil prices, opening the door for potentially cheaper LNG. And Europe — spooked by the war in Ukraine and its reliance on Russian gas — has been getting ready to handle more LNG imports. “Russia will not want [a price war], but it’s inevitable,” says Massimo Di Odoardo, principal gas analyst with Edinburgh-based Wood Mackenzie, a leading energy consultancy.

First, some math. Global LNG production capacity stood at 14 trillion cubic feet in 2014, already higher than demand of nearly 12 trillion cubic feet. Capacity only stands to rise from there; the International Energy Agency projects that supplies will jump another 40 percent by 2020, far faster than demand. “There is a real risk of an LNG boom-bust price cycle,” says Costanza Jacazio, an analyst at the International Energy Agency.

All that extra gas will start squeezing prices, and that’s where it gets interesting for geopolitics.

Australia will produce a lot of that gas, although almost all of it is already committed to Asian markets. But the U.S. is building five huge LNG export terminals on the Atlantic coast, the first of which should begin operating early next year. That export capacity, which the U.S. Energy Information Administration conservatively estimates at 2.5 trillion cubic feet by 2022, will position the U.S. as a “swing supplier” capable of gassing up either Asia or Europe as needed. In fact, roughly half of future U.S. LNG cargoes are already slated for Asia. But the rest should head toward Europe, says Jonathan Stern, chairman of the gas research program at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. Several European companies have contracted for some deliveries, and in any case, the IEA expects overall European LNG imports to double (to 3.2 trillion cubic feet) by the end of the decade.

All that extra gas will start squeezing prices, and that’s where it gets interesting for geopolitics. In recent years, Gazprom has been selling gas to European companies at around $10 per million BTU. But big exports of U.S. LNG could hit Europe as low as $6 per million BTU, Di Odoardo says. The U.S. can afford to export its gas at close to cost, says Stern; having spent heavily to build those export terminals, suppliers need to keep them humming. And keeping prices low might help them establish a foothold in Europe.

Of course, U.S. suppliers don’t have to sell to Europe at rock-bottom prices — and even if they do, Europe may not see much economic upside, since its demand for gas is falling, says Nick Butler, a former BP executive. Russia also wouldn’t be hurt right away by cheap LNG imports, since its long-term contracts with Europe would buffer the immediate impact. Ultimately, though, Gazprom and its ilk would have to accept either lower market share in Europe or lower prices — and profits — from their gas exports. For now, the latter scenario seems more likely; the IEA expects Russian gas exports to Europe to remain stable through 2020. “The need for drastic measures might not be there, but much depends on what strategy Russia wants to engage in,” says the IEA’s Jacazio.

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