Technology giving new nations a shot as energy producers


McClatchy Foreign Staff

New technologies to unlock energy below the earth’s surface could transform the global energy picture, allowing a handful of nations not ordinarily thought of as energy producers to emerge.

That’s because shale formations holding natural gas and oil are more widely spread around the globe than traditional oil reservoirs, broadening access to energy.

“Ten years from now, Poland will be a winner. Bulgaria could be a winner, Romania and Lithuania, too,” said David L. Goldwyn, founder of Goldwyn Global Strategies, an energy intelligence consultancy in Washington.

Natural gas and oil lie under the eastern Mediterranean Sea, turning Cyprus, Israel, Lebanon and even the Gaza Strip into potential energy producers.

Africa’s energy picture is also in flux. While big suppliers like Nigeria and Angola on Africa’s west coast reel from dropping U.S. demand for their crude, Mozambique in East Africa is poised to tap into huge offshore natural gas reserves that could prove transformative.

“Five years from now, they are going to be a major (liquid natural gas) export power to the Indian Ocean. Mozambique will be the hub of East African gas,” Goldwyn said, adding that neighboring Tanzania also will benefit from cheaper energy.

“That whole region will see access to electricity, cheaper product prices . . . and they’ll have the opportunity for some terrific prosperity,” Goldwyn said.

In Latin America, Argentina has the world’s second largest shale gas reserves. But unlike Colombia and Brazil to the north, nations that have opened the doors to foreign investment, Argentina will have trouble raising the tens of billions of dollars it needs to invest following its 2001 default on the financial markets.

Other obstacles can arise. Entrenched nationalism in Mexico means most production is in the hands of the state giant, Petroleos Mexicanos, which has limited capital and experience to tap into the world’s sixth largest shale gas reserves.

“Mexico doesn’t know how to do it,” said Miriam Grunstein Dickter, an energy expert at the Center for Research and Teaching of Economics in Mexico City.

Mexico’s Congress is in the final weeks of debating a proposal to open up the energy sector to foreign investment in risk-sharing contracts that could spur exploration and production in deep Gulf of Mexico waters and in shale formations near the border with Texas.

Even factors like lack of water and poor roads can hinder development, said Peter Kiernan, lead energy analyst for the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, signaling the case of Poland.

“The shale gas reserves are in rural areas where the roads are very narrow. There’s a lot of stress on the roads from delivering the thousands of truck trips that you need to transport the fracking fluids back and forth,” Kiernan said.

While some nations stumble in unleashing their potential, others don’t.

Colombia, which in the 1990s experienced a decline in production, has sharply reversed its fortunes, opening the door to new companies. Half of new petroleum reserves discovered last year were from companies new to the country, Energy Minister Federico Renjifo Velez said. Shale oil also appears abundant.

“Colombia has an enormous energy capacity,” Renjifo boasted.

Mark C. Thurber, associate head of the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University, said shale oil and gas development worldwide, even if still on a small scale, has the potential to level the global energy playing field.

“These shale resources are distributed more widely,” he said. “There are implications to having things more evenly spread around. From an economic perspective, it makes it harder to hold cartel power.”

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