In chaos theory, a small change in one part of an interconnected system can have large repercussions when carried all the way through a resulting chain of effects. The celebrated example is that a butterfly fluttering its wings in China could change global weather conditions just enough that it ultimately produces a hurricane in the Caribbean.
Now researchers at the James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University are positing that U.S. development of shale gas reserves is having major international geopolitical consequences, including checking the growth of the “petro-power” that Russia, Venezuela, and Iran have been exerting over energy-importing European countries. The new analysis concludes that U.S. shale production will greatly reduce this country’s need to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) for at least two to three decades. This, in turn, will create more competition among gas suppliers in global markets, preventing the creation of a “gas OPEC” and limiting the potential of unfriendly powers to operate in ways that are adverse to U.S. national security interests. The study’s authors (Kenneth Medlock, Amy Jaffe, and Peter Hartley) describe the global effects of the U.S. shale gas play as “game changing,” and, among other things, predict they will lower the cost to average Americans of reducing greenhouse gases, as the country moves toward lower carbon fuels. This new source of U.S. energy independence – and indeed, an ability to export shale gas that some entrepreneurs are already moving to embrace – is making people wonder if they are hearing the flutter of butterfly wings.