So far it has cost Saudi Arabia something like $200 billion to undertake one of the most expensive experiments of all time. The Saudi government has been draining its massive $2 trillion sovereign wealth fund to cover revenues lost from the petroleum price collapse over the past couple of years.
What we’re witnessing is a two-part test. The first question is how much damage have low oil prices caused America’s shale industry. Then the second and far more critical part of the test: As oil prices rise, will the shale industry limp or roar back? If it roars back, high oil prices are history. Odds are now that in 2017 we will witness—along with the oil princes of Arabia—the outcome. However it goes, the economic and geopolitical implications are enormous. And the outcome has more to do with technology than with politics.
Nothing is Bigger Than Oil
But before delving into all that, some underlying realities: This is no small battle. Oil is the world’s biggest traded commodity, bigger than all the minerals and metals combined, bigger than agriculture. And despite decades of hype, hope and subsidies, petroleum fuels 95 percent of the machines used to move all people and all goods for all purposes, trade included. The world today uses more oil than at any other time in history and every forecast—including a recent lamentation about this reality from the International Energy Agency—predicts demand will increase for the usefully foreseeable future. And of deep geopolitical relevance, of the world’s five economic regions that account for 75 percent of global GDP—Europe, China, India, Japan and North America—four of them will see rising dependency on petroleum imports. North America, especially the United States, is the outlier with exactly the reverse trend.
As for the Saudi experiment, it distills to answering a basic question....
Mark P. Mills is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering, and author of Expanding America's Petroleum Power: Geopolitics in the Third Oil Era. Follow him on Twitter here.