/ Published February 05, 2018
Windfall: How the New Energy Abundance Upends Global Politics and Strengthens America’s Power by Meghan L. O’Sullivan. Simon & Schuster, 2017, 479pp.
In her book Windfall: How the New Energy Abundance Upends Global Politics and Strengthens America’s Power, Meghan L. O’Sullivan weaves a data-rich narrative that at times feels like a history lesson and at others, as if she is still ripping stories straight from today’s headlines even a year after the book’s publication. The book plays two roles: to review the dramatic changes in the global energy landscape and to advocate for effectively using American soft power as a result of these changes. O’Sullivan, a former deputy national security advisor in the second Bush administration, plots a nonpartisan course through various presidential administrations, sticking to the facts and results from the historical record. Through it all, she weaves her own vast international relations experience into the resulting treatise that will undoubtedly educate the reader as major events and news reports from the last decade are stitched together into a compelling and powerful story that continues even today.
While the politics and global economics of oil and natural gas are beyond the day-to-day interests of most Americans, the repercussions are immediately felt in the economic environment that means the most to the average citizen: home. The soaring cost of gasoline from 2001 until the Great Recession—and its quick resurgence of price once the recession had ended in the United States—was felt by Americans across the economic, geographic, and political spectrum. As most of the economy is powered, transported, or produced with the help of oil and oil by-products, the US consumer felt every uptick in the cost of oil. The rise in nominal prices started slowly. From approximately $22 per barrel in 2001 it took only until 2005 to climb through the 1981 record high of $37.10 per barrel. Since then, the price has quickly jumped, gaining nearly $10 per barrel per year—costs that were passed on to customers across the nation (p. 29).
In the midst of the global rise in fuel prices, a revolution in energy was brewing in the fields of Texas and North Dakota, plots of so-called “tight oil” (often called “shale oil” in the news) were beginning to produce substantial quantities of crude and a new word entered the American lexicon: fracking. These “unconventional oil” sources, so named because they do not reside in large underground reservoirs like one imagines when thinking of Middle Eastern oil, had been worked for years with steadily improving efficiency. By the mid-2000s the efforts of early pioneers in the field, decades in the making, were starting to bear fruit (p. 18). Beyond the immediate economic benefits to US consumers, the boom had profound hard and soft power implications for US policy. The immediate geopolitical impact of lower oil prices is touched upon by the author and still relevant in today’s news.
Venezuela, its government heavily dependent on its oil reserves to maintain stability, is expecting a 15 percent reduction in gross domestic product (GDP) and an astounding 13,000 percent inflation rate per a January 2018 International Monetary Fund (IMF) report. The Russian economy is dominated by oil and natural gas, accounting for 50 percent of the nation’s exports, meaning that swings in global market prices have a profound impact on government revenues. Meanwhile, the low prices compound Iran’s post-sanctions economy and led in part to the December 2017 protests that rocked the country. Yet beyond the diminishing power of America’s global antagonists, there are other benefits to American foreign policy objectives that the author posits can be of use to US soft power.
The largest customer of oil in the United States government is the Department of Defense (DOD), consuming over 90 percent of all federal oil purchases (p. 119). The author notes the tremendous costs in both blood and treasure of procuring and protecting DOD fuel assets: over $15 billion in FY13 and 170 casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq from protecting fuel convoys in 2007 alone (p. 120). Tight oil production in the United States does not have the flexibility, scale, or centralized control that conventional oil producing giants such as Saudi Arabia have, so the shale fields of the Trans-Mississippi will not replace the vast quantities of crude that flow through the Arabian Gulf. Instead the author proposes that with a more robust domestic supply, the US can join with other states in sharing the burden of stabilization in this dynamic region. She stresses that while the US will retain strategic interests in the region, American citizens will cite the seeming domestic surplus and insist that the US not engage in the level of military intervention that it has for the last 15 years (p. 119). This, in her opinion, could produce one of the many opportunities she sees opening for the US to improve multilateral cooperation with China.
China consumes one-fifth of the world’s energy each day, the annual equivalent of 3 trillion gallons of oil (p. 123). Chinese foreign policy has increasingly focused on the acquisition of resources, often establishing relationships with nations that would otherwise find it difficult to have stable partnerships with democratic nations in North America and Europe. The author describes that this is in part because as an undemocratic nation itself, China has found itself locked out of the International Energy Agency. Additionally, due to its late arrival to the stage in terms of world powers, it feels sidelined at otherwise inclusive organizations such as the G20, World Bank, and IMF because the “rules” of Bretton Woods–era organizations are already set.
Thanks to the surplus of American crude and the reduction in risk of “Peak Oil” coming soon, China’s resource-gathering pace has slowed and its clamoring for changes in such global governance organizations such as the G20 and IMF has slowed. This provides the US time and leverage to slowly integrated China into the existing system—which America has great stake in due to its importance as a global stability mechanism—instead of needing to rapidly flex the system to accommodate China. Furthermore, O’Sullivan postulates that with more robust domestic supplies, the US has more leverage with which to develop a relationship with other world powers when it comes to organizing stability in the Middle East, coordinating responses that are mutually beneficial while not being overly burdensome on any one nation militarily or financially (p. 126).
O’Sullivan packs decades of history neatly into her book and provides timely (though difficult to interpret in grayscale) graphs to present her information throughout. Her analysis of past examples and comparisons to present trends across countries and regions sells her viewpoint well. This book is an easy read. The author conveniently reiterates the meaning of potentially confusing terms and provides in-text references to different chapters of her own book when she provides a point that she intends to expound upon later or if she mentioned them earlier. This book is a must read for anyone attempting to gain a better grasp on the economics and geopolitical impact of one of the most dynamic commodities in the globalized economy. The balance of influence for the hydrocarbon-dependent economies of the world—both producers and consumers—is shifting before our very eyes, and the strategic implications for the United States cannot be overstated.
Capt Daniel W. McLaughlin, USAF
. Alejandro Werner, “Latin America and the Caribbean in 2018: An Economic Recovery in the Making,” IMFBlog (blog), International Monetary Fund, 25 January 2018, https://blogs.imf.org/2018/01/25/latin-america-and-the-caribbean-in-2018-an-economic-recovery-in-the-making/.
. Andrew E. Kramer, “Rising Oil Prices Buoy Russia’s Economy, Despite Sanctions,” New York Times, 18 January 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/18/world/europe/russia-oil-economy.html.
. Ellen R. Wald, “Iran Protests Highlight Economic Failings of the Revolution,” Forbes, 1 January 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/ellenrwald/2018/01/01/iran-protests-highlight-economic-failings-of-the-revolution/#45d43026561a.