As in the environmental and economic fields, the transition from conventional to unconventional oil and gas will have a substantial, if still largely undefined, impact on political and military affairs.
US and Canadian companies are playing a decisive role in the development of many of the vital new unconventional fossil-fuel technologies; in addition, some of the world's largest unconventional oil and gas reserves are located in North America. The effect of this is to bolster US global power at the expense of rival energy producers like Russia and Venezuela, which face rising competition from North American companies, and energy-importing states like China and India, which lack the resources and technology to produce unconventional fuels.
At the same time, Washington appears more inclined to counter the rise of China by seeking to dominate the global sea lanes and bolster its military ties with regional allies like Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea. Many factors are contributing to this strategic shift, but from their statements it is clear enough that top American officials see it as stemming in significant part from America's growing self-sufficiency in energy production and its early mastery of the latest production technologies.
"America's new energy posture allows us to engage [the world] from a position of greater strength," National Security Advisor Tom Donilon asserted in an April speech at Columbia University. "Increasing US energy supplies act as a cushion that helps reduce our vulnerability to global supply disruptions [and] affords us a stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals."
For the time being, the US leaders can afford to boast of their "stronger hand" in world affairs, as no other country possesses the capabilities to exploit unconventional resources on such a large scale. By seeking to extract geopolitical benefits from a growing world reliance on such fuels, however, Washington inevitably invites countermoves of various sorts. Rival powers, fearful and resentful of its geopolitical assertiveness, will bolster their capacity to resist American power—a trend already evident in China's accelerating naval and missile buildup.
At the same time, other states will seek to develop their own capacity to exploit unconventional resources in what might be considered a fossil-fuels version of an arms race. This will require considerable effort, but such resources are widely distributed across the planet and in time other major producers of unconventional fuels are bound to emerge, challenging America's advantage in this realm (even as they increase the staying power and global destructiveness of the third age of carbon). Sooner or later, much of international relations will revolve around these issues.
Surviving the Third Carbon Era
Barring unforeseen shifts in global policies and behavior, the world will become increasingly dependent on the exploitation of unconventional energy. This, in turn, means an increase in the buildup of greenhouse gases with little possibility of averting the onset of catastrophic climate effects. Yes, we will also witness progress in the development and installation of renewable forms of energy, but these will play a subordinate role to the development of unconventional oil and gas.
Life in the third carbon era will not be without its benefits. Those who rely on fossil fuels for transportation, heating, and the like can perhaps take comfort from the fact that oil and natural gas will not run out soon, as was predicted by many energy analysts in the early years of this century. Banks, the energy corporations, and other economic interests will undoubtedly amass staggering profits from the explosive expansion of the unconventional oil business and global increases in the consumption of these fuels. But most of us won't be rewarded. Quite the opposite. Instead, we'll experience the discomfort and suffering accompanying the heating of the planet, the scarcity of contested water supplies in many regions, and the evisceration of the natural landscape.
What can be done to cut short the third carbon era and avert the worst of these outcomes? Calling for greater investment in green energy is essential but insufficient at a moment when the powers that be are emphasizing the development of unconventional fuels. Campaigning for curbs on carbon emissions is necessary, but will undoubtedly prove problematic, given an increasingly deeply embedded institutional bias toward unconventional energy.
Needed, in addition to such efforts, is a drive to expose the distinctiveness and the dangers of unconventional energy and to demonize those who choose to invest in these fuels rather than their green alternatives. Some efforts of this sort are already underway, including student-initiated campaigns to persuade or compel college and university trustees to divest from any investments in fossil-fuel companies. These, however, still fall short of a systemic drive to identify and resist those responsible for our growing reliance on unconventional fuels.
For all President Obama's talk of a green technology revolution, we remain deeply entrenched in a world dominated by fossil fuels, with the only true revolution now underway involving the shift from one class of such fuels to another. Without a doubt, this is a formula for global catastrophe. To survive this era, humanity must become much smarter about this new kind of energy and then take the steps necessary to compress the third carbon era and hasten in the Age of Renewables before we burn ourselves off this planet.
Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of The Race for What's Left, just published in paperback by Picador. A documentary movie based on his book Blood and Oil can be previewed and ordered at www.bloodandoilmovie.com. You can follow Klare on Facebook by clicking here.
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