Energy and Geopolitics
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Energy and Geopolitics

Per Högselius

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eBook - ePub

Energy and Geopolitics

Per Högselius

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About This Book

The idea that energy shapes and is shaped by geopolitics is firmly rooted in the popular imagination – and not without reason. Very few countries have the means to secure their energy needs through locally available supplies; instead, enduring dependencies upon other countries have developed. Given energy's strategic significance, supply systems for fuels and electricity are now seamlessly interwoven with foreign policy and global politics.

Energy and Geopolitics enables students to enhance their understanding and sharpen their analytical skills with respect to the complex relations between energy supply, energy markets and international politics. Per Högselius guides us through the complexities of world energy and international energy relations, examining a wide spectrum of fossil fuels, alongside nuclear and renewable energies. Uniquely, the book also shows how the geopolitics of energy is not merely a matter for the great powers and reveals how actors in the world's smaller nations are as active in their quest for power and control.

Encouraging students to apply a number of central concepts and theoretical ideas to different energy sources within a multitude of geographical, political and historical contexts, this book will be a vital resource to students and scholars of geopolitics, energy security and international environmental policy and politics.

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1 Introduction

The idea that energy shapes and is shaped by geopolitics is today firmly rooted in the popular imagination. Two decades into the twenty-first century, it may even seem that the supply of energy in the world is inherently geopolitical, because it is virtually impossible to find a component in the global energy system that is not part, in one way or the other, of the earthly political drama. Conversely, it is almost impossible to think about modern geopolitics without making constant reference to energy – be it in the form of fossil fuels, nuclear power or the quest for renewables.
For most people, mentioning “energy” and “geopolitics” in the same sentence evokes memories of dramatic international events and crises such as the 1973 Arab oil embargo, Russia’s alleged use of natural gas as a foreign policy tool or American visions of attaining “energy independence”. Others may think of the radical disruption of energy supplies during the two World Wars, modern Iran’s quest for access to uranium enrichment technology or European plans to tap into North African solar energy. But these developments, important as they may be, are just the tip of a huge iceberg. In the twenty-first century, the geopolitics of energy is everywhere. It is not merely something we find “out there”; it affects all of us as humans and interferes with our everyday lives.
Living in Sweden, I sometimes consider this when I wake up on a dark winter morning and turn on the lights in my apartment. When I turn on the lights, I become part of an electricity system that relies on huge turbines installed in distant Arctic rivers, from which electricity, through an internationally interlinked transmission system, is brought to my home in Stockholm; on nuclear power plants relying on uranium ore mined in Australia, transported across the oceans and enriched in France; and on offshore wind turbines erected in the Baltic Sea. I contemplate that the waterfalls in northern Sweden are able to generate electricity only because early twentieth-century industry and government leaders, fearing the potential consequences of Sweden’s growing dependence on British coal for electricity production, thought it worthwhile to invest in this domestic energy source – Sweden’s “white coal” – and because indigenous Sami protests against the physical alteration of the North’s fragile environments were ignored in the process. As for Sweden’s nuclear power plants, they are able to generate power only because the country’s government has signed the international Non-Proliferation Treaty – a sine qua non for any country that wishes to source uranium through diplomatically approved channels of trade – and because the Australian government has decided that the far-reaching environmental destruction that inevitably results from uranium mining is tolerable.
My colleagues in continental Europe may at the same time be scrambling their breakfast eggs on gas-fired stoves. The gas that heats their pans is piped into their houses through an intricate distribution system, the main supply sources for which are buried in sandstone under the Siberian tundra, deep down in the Saharan desert and beneath the salty depths of the North Sea. The gas flows into their stoves only because political and business leaders, in the midst of the Cold War and radical decolonization processes in Algeria, Libya and elsewhere, managed to negotiate long-term contracts for imports of these faraway gas sources. In fact, the available volumes of imported natural gas in Europe are so large that Europeans use it not only for cooking purposes but also for heating their water and their houses in winter. Industries and electric power plants have also taken advantage of the foreign gas streams. European food supply likewise depends on non-European gas because it is the main raw material for producing nitrogenous fertilizers. But for how long will the gas keep flowing? After all, natural gas is a fossil – and thus finite – fuel. In most countries, this resource is already close to exhaustion. In the Netherlands, once a major gas producer, production is now rapidly being phased out due to a tragic course of depletion which has recently given rise to a series of strange earthquakes in the Groningen region. But most European analysts agree that natural gas is direly needed to manage the transition to renewables. And this gas will have to come from ever more remote fields.
Meanwhile, my friends at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, being seven hours ahead of me, are perhaps returning home early from work so as to avoid the huge traffic jams that have been plaguing the Middle Kingdom’s capital city for many years now. Beijing has opened a dozen or so new subway lines since the early 2000s, but it is individualized rather than public transport, more than anything else, that has captured the imagination of the Chinese urban middle class. The dream of a personal car is pervasive, and at the time of this writing, a petrol-driven vehicle remains the self-evident choice for Beijing’s car buyers. The number of cars in China has more than tripled from 64 million in 2008 to 194 million in 2016,1 and there has been a corresponding growth in filling stations. The latter are owned by Chinese state-controlled oil companies, which face the delicate task of procuring all the crude oil that is necessary for my academic colleagues to be able to regularly fill up their vehicles. The oil companies do so not only by buying oil on the open market, but above all through “strategic partnerships” with the oil industries of Kazakhstan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and elsewhere. There, the companies’ aggressive investments are interpreted by critics as just another form of colonialism and, in Central Asia, bricks in a “New Great Game” – a reference to the late nineteenth-century struggle for control over this region between Britain, Russia and China.
Figure 1.1 Road traffic in modern Beijing. The dream of a personal car is pervasive in China, contributing decisively to the country’s rapidly growing oil-import dependence. Photo: Per Högselius.
So the geopolitics of energy is closer to us than we might think. And it shapes our world views – sometimes negatively, sometimes positively. It confirms or challenges our perceptions about whether everything is going to hell or, by contrast, if a new bright era in the history of humankind – or of our own country – is emerging. To some, energy’s marriage with geopolitics has generated a fatal “race for what’s left”, an escalating struggle for increasingly scarce yet vital resources that is bound to end in a global, apocalyptic war.2 Others are convinced that a different kind of apocalypse – that of global warming – can similarly be traced back to energy in its geopolitical context, because it is only through the movement of vast volumes of fossil fuels across the globe that their massive combustion and hence large-scale carbon emissions become possible. Another popular understanding is that poverty, injustices and civil wars in much of the “Third World” can be explained only in terms of fabulous – but abused – resource riches in countries such as Iraq and the DRC.
The optimists point to the geopolitics of energy as a creative force in national and international politics. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, for example, global might in oil and gas has become a surrogate for Russia’s lost superpower status – and, by extension, a key constituent of Russian national identity. While foreign observers hardly subscribe to the idea that this is something positive, the dream of mobilizing Russian resource wealth to build a prosperous, modern Russia is undoubtedly still alive and kicking. French national identity, for its part, is linked to nuclear energy, which contributes to the country’s literal and metaphorical radiance in the world, while Norway’s “responsible” management of its resource wealth goes hand in hand with this small nation’s understanding of itself as a “humanitarian superpower”. For Azerbaijan, energy – and the 2011 victory in the Eurovision Song Contest – is what makes the nation “European”. In European Union (EU) politics, meanwhile, energy now seems to offer a welcome opportunity to forge closer intra-European ties in an age of looming refugee crises, economic quarrels between north and south over budgets and debts, and political separatism pointing towards disintegration. And what, if not a natural gas pipeline from Russia to the Korean peninsula, could become the trigger for political reunification between North and South?

What is energy?

Both “energy” and “geopolitics” are notoriously slippery terms. “Energy” is closely linked to the history of physics, but it has since become a popular concept in many other sciences as well, including the social sciences. Standard dictionary definitions teach us that energy is “the capacity for doing work” – but this does not bring us far when it comes to energy in the social and political realm. Physicists tell us that energy cannot be created or destroyed. Yet we would be unable to navigate the realm of energy in society without referring to the “production”, “consumption” and “waste” of energy. The idea that some forms of energy are “renewable” sounds like witchcraft to the physicist’s ear, yet it is part and parcel of modern energy policymaking. And while the laws of thermodynamics assure us that energy is always “conserved” in one way or the other, the quest for energy conservation and storage remains a daunting challenge.
In the social and (geo)political context, energy sources do not exist in any objective sense; they “become” energy through various social, political and economic activities.3 Take oil: the oil industry experienced its breakthrough during the second half of the nineteenth century. But oil was not an unknown substance in pre-industrial times. Ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Pliny the Elder wrote about the black liquid that came seeping up from the ground. In Greece and Babylonia, applications were found for the material in medicine, pharmacy and agriculture. It was also used in refined form as a literal – rather than, as in our own era, metaphorical – weapon. Petroleum was also a well-known substance in China. In North America, Paleo-Indians collected oil on a fairly large scale for use in their religious rituals. Centuries later, in the mid-1840s, things started to change. There was now a great demand for lighting appliances – in homes but also in factories. Industrialization was coming, and factory owners wanted to be able to operate their expensive machines even when it was dark outside, especially in wintertime. Firewood and vegetable oils, the traditional forms of light, would not do for this purpose. Whale oil was emerging as a popular alternative. Then somebody came up with the idea of making use of coal to produce a kind of lighting oil. In the 1850s, it was discovered that this kind of oil could also be obtained through the distillation of petroleum. The resulting liquid was called kerosene. It became immensely popular, and a new energy source was born – after thousands of years of non-energy uses of “rock oil”.4
Figure 1.2 Oil gusher in Baku, 1883. After several millennia of non-energy uses of petroleum, “rock oil” emerged as a large-scale energy source in the second half of the nineteenth century. Photo: Kochne W. & Co./Swedish National Museum of Science and Technology.
Natural gas, for its part, was long regarded as a nasty by-product of oil extraction. It was a dangerous thing, liable to cause lethal explosions and jeopardize industrial installations and business profits. To deal with this problem, producers started “flaring” gas – in other words, it was burnt in the air. Such gas fires may still be seen in many oil-producing regions, indicating that natural gas is regarded less as something useful than as a waste product. Subsequently, oil industrialists came up with the idea of using gas as an energy source in its own right. For this purpose, they started building pipelines to connect oil and gas fields with industrial and urban regions. There, the gas was put to work for cooking, heating and various industrial purposes. And so natural gas became an energy resource.5
Equally telling is the story of how uranium came to be viewed as an energy resource. In Roman times, uranium oxides were found useful for colouring purposes in the ceramic industry. In the Middle Ages, uranium ore began to be extracted on a larger scale from silver mines near Jáchymov, in what is now the Czech Republic, from where it was brought to nearby glassmaking industries. In the late nineteenth century, steel industrialists took an interest in uranium and started to use it as an alloying metal. Elsewhere, however, uranium, like natural gas, was typically perceived as an unwanted waste product. Gold miners in South Africa were constantly annoyed by it, as it made people ill. Then, during World War II, the bomb-makers arrived, seeing in uranium the potential for a new weapon of hitherto unimaginable force. Only in the years around 1950 did the idea seriously emerge of uranium as an energy source. Today it is a major, and controversial, source of electricity in many countries.6
In this sense, over centuries humans have not merely “discovered” various energy sources; they have “invented” them. It is crucial to be aware of this aspect because the “invention” process is by no means complete. In present-day debates about bioenergy, for example, it is hardly clear which trees and crops may be regarded as energy – especially in view of the many competing uses these materials serve, notably in the food domain. And what kind of material substances will “become energy” tomorrow? The waves rolling in from the ocean are one of the most recent targets for engineers in search of new things that can become exploited. Some scientists and engineers even believe that seawater in and of itself may be turned into an energy source.
Some scholars refer to invention in this sense as processes of “social construction”, indicating that it is in the social realm that much of the global energy system is “built”. Whether or not wave energy will become a success, for example, is not merely a matter of technological successes and failures but also depends crucially on whether a critical mass of support for the idea can be mobilized among financiers, politicians, regulators and, not least, the general public. As we will see, not only energy as such is “invented” or “socially constructed”; different kinds of risks and uncertainties – and how they are weighed against each other in debates and decision-making processes – are subject to similar forces, as are the much discussed “energy weapons”.7
Humans have also come up with the idea that energy sources can become internationally traded as “commodities”. While “energy” refers mainly to something materially useful, the notion of coal, oil, gas and other energy sources as commodities is distinctly economic. It has to do with dollars, euros and yuans rather than with joules or watts or a hot bath. The process of commodification, through which energy sources are assigned a market value (or an “exchange value”, as Marxists prefer to call it), is key to anyone interested in energy and geopolitics.8 Without it, most fossil fuels and uranium ores would most probably have remained in the ground; they would not have “become” energy. Few (if any) human agents would have been interested in extracting and refining them on a large scale because there would not have been any revenue stream to make up for the huge investments needed to extract the fuel and bring it to consumers. The importance of energy sources being traded as commodities is most evident in market economies. But even in supposedly non-market economies, such as the former Soviet Union and its satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe, fuels were sold and bought on a grand scale, both domestically and internationally. Today, the global energy system is inext...

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