Marcellus shale gas-drilling site in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania
Nikolaus Piper

-Analysis-

NEW YORK - Not long ago, China replaced the United States as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet. And now the International Energy Agency (IEA) is predicting two things: the first is that the U.S. will be the world’s biggest oil producer in the next 10 years. The second is that from 2030 on, America will be exporting more oil than it imports. Suddenly, the global energy outlook as we have known it for decades has been turned on its head.

Not everything about the latest round of predictions will come true. Experts can and do make mistakes, particularly when dealing with the future. But there is no doubt they are right about the trend, signs of which can already be observed.

The U.S. is undergoing a singular change as far as energy is concerned. And it is based not on wind or solar energy, but on fossil fuels – an oil and gas boom that hasn’t been seen for 100 years. This year alone, the country imported 11% less crude than it did during the same period in 2011. The U.S. is already the world’s biggest producer of natural gas, and surplus is becoming a problem. Prices are sinking, and some companies are fighting to survive. Overnight, North Dakota has become an oil sheikdom.

Shifting geopolitical balances

The economic, political and geopolitical consequences of this are far-reaching. For example, in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, and other oil nations will become less important to the U.S. Even now, only 20% of the country’s oil imports come from the region, in contrast to China, which depends on the Middle East for 50% of its energy supplies. This is not to say that militarily the States will withdraw completely from the region. An Iranian nuclear bomb would be just as dangerous even if there were no oil. In the interests of international stability, the U.S. fleet is going to have to see to it that the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf stays open.

What is different, however, is that there is no longer a direct connection between America’s voracious appetite for energy and its military commitment in the region. Seen purely from the standpoint of economic interests, a stable Middle East is now more important for Asia than it is for the United States. This means that OPEC, the cartel of oil exporters, will still have clout-- but no longer in Washington.

These new realities mean that the United States, with its rich, newfound lodes, is unlikely to become easier to deal with as a partner. President Barack Obama cannot get relevant climate legislation to pass through the Republican-led House of Representatives, and now he can no longer use energy security as leverage. So, as regards energy and climate policy, Europeans should not expect too much from him.

Clean fuel, less carbon emission

We tend to forget that American greenhouse gases are already decreasing, and this is not due only to the weak economy. Stricter standards for cars are beginning to make a difference, and renewable energy sources also play a role, albeit a small one. The decrease is mainly due to the replacement of coal by cheap natural gas in electrical power plants. Of the fossil fuels, gas is the “cleanest,” emitting the least carbon dioxide.

It is difficult to calculate the risks of this new development. The additional gas comes from so-called unconventional reserves stored in layers of shale, which can be accessed using water, sand and chemicals through use of the controversial method known as fracking. There have been anti-fracking protests, particularly in Pennsylvania and New York, and nearly all the protesters voted for Obama. That does not make the president’s position any easier. But even in the best of cases, environmental protest will only serve to make the new energy reality more efficient. It will not change the boom itself. The advantages for the nation are too big for that.

The consequences of America’s change in energy outlook will also be felt on this side of the Atlantic. Theoretically, Europe could profit from cheap American natural gas, but there is not enough of the necessary infrastructure-- liquefaction facilities, fluid-gas tankers -- to do so. Therefore the boom will initially, at least, mean a classic competitive disadvantage for Europe, particularly for Germany as an exporting nation. In the U.S., the cost of energy for industry will sink, and in Germany the cost will rise. A partner becomes a new competitor.

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Society

Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe


BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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