Energy’s new frontier: More oil and gas, in more places

This week, an oilman acquaintance from the rush days on the Caspian Sea told me he’s now working deals in Paraguay and Argentina. He called it one of the untold energy stories — Brazil, he said, needs much natural gas, and will get it by pipeline from these neighbors. And, while the main news from ...

AIZAR RALDES/AFP/Getty Images

This week, an oilman acquaintance from the rush days on the Caspian Sea told me he's now working deals in Paraguay and Argentina. He called it one of the untold energy stories -- Brazil, he said, needs much natural gas, and will get it by pipeline from these neighbors. And, while the main news from South America remains Brazil, what about Bolivia, too? Spain's Repsol YPF has just announced a gas find of 1 trillion cubic feet, equivalent to about 170 million barrels of oil -- not quite Karachaganak, but not a tiny reserve, either. If the Bolivian bureaucracy can be navigated, this gas also could also be sold and piped to Brazil.

This picture fits in with a story around the world. While the focus of attention of late has largely been on China's resource grab, oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, and the apparent demise of the green agenda in the United States, much is going on in heretofore unmentioned places on the energy map. As a whole, the significance is that the presumed transition to a non-fossil fuel future is a long, long runway -- the titans of Big Oil such as Exxon have long said that green technology will have to wait until the second half of this century to start carving away noticeable slices of hydrocarbons' share of global energy, and that time frame seems reasonably accurate.

This week, an oilman acquaintance from the rush days on the Caspian Sea told me he’s now working deals in Paraguay and Argentina. He called it one of the untold energy stories — Brazil, he said, needs much natural gas, and will get it by pipeline from these neighbors. And, while the main news from South America remains Brazil, what about Bolivia, too? Spain’s Repsol YPF has just announced a gas find of 1 trillion cubic feet, equivalent to about 170 million barrels of oil — not quite Karachaganak, but not a tiny reserve, either. If the Bolivian bureaucracy can be navigated, this gas also could also be sold and piped to Brazil.

This picture fits in with a story around the world. While the focus of attention of late has largely been on China’s resource grab, oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, and the apparent demise of the green agenda in the United States, much is going on in heretofore unmentioned places on the energy map. As a whole, the significance is that the presumed transition to a non-fossil fuel future is a long, long runway — the titans of Big Oil such as Exxon have long said that green technology will have to wait until the second half of this century to start carving away noticeable slices of hydrocarbons’ share of global energy, and that time frame seems reasonably accurate.

Instead, what we have is a big new hydrocarbon business in which, by necessity, the extreme fringe is fast morphing into the center.

Bloomberg’s Paul Burkhardt, for example, writes about a U.S. State Department effort: David Goldwyn, the State Department’s coordinator for international energy affairs, is flying around the world offering unspecified financial assistance and training for future mini-petrostates such as Suriname, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste. No project agreements appear to have actually been consummated with the 11 countries with which Goldwyn is speaking. In an interview, Goldwyn gave Burkhardt the boilerplate: “energy security and diversity of supply,” the 2010 version of the department’s 1990s mantra “Happiness is multiple pipelines.” But the program clearly is Washington’s answer to Beijing:  to get in tight with these countries before China does.

Greenland is part of this new energy map, too. Global warming has suddenly put this gigantic but sparsely populated fishing nation, along with its presumed substantial offshore oil reserves, in play. Of course, Greenpeace doesn’t intend to make it easy, as protesters showed this week by suspending themselves from a Cairn Energy platform in the Baffin Bay Basin, off Greenland’s west coast. But Kuupik Kleist, Greenland’s prime minister, intends to shift his nation out of the fishing-village category, and in with the petrostates.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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