from Energy Realpolitik and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

China’s Coming Challenge to the U.S. Petro-Economy

Electric trucks are shown at BYD headquarters in Shenzhen, China May 25, 2016. (REUTERS/Bobby Yip)

February 22, 2018

Electric trucks are shown at BYD headquarters in Shenzhen, China May 25, 2016. (REUTERS/Bobby Yip)
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U.S. oil production is set to surpass its all-time record monthly high (first set in 1970), and U.S. liquefied natural gas exports are roaring ahead, with 800 billion cubic feet already shipped since 2016. The U.S. Energy Information Administration is expecting the United States to become a net exporter of natural gas soon. This all bodes well for the Donald J. Trump administration’s aspiration for America to “dominate” global oil and gas markets and will improve the U.S. trade balance. The geographical diversity of the shale revolution across the United States now also partly shields the U.S. economy from the net ill-effects of sudden oil price rises. This stands in contrast to China, which has become the world’s largest oil importer. But could there be too much of a good thing?

Rising U.S. oil and gas production is weakening Russia’s ability to use energy as a lever in international discourse and has diminished Iran’s ability to use its oil and gas sector as a diplomatic lure. Energy abundance provides many strategic and economic advantages. But lawmakers and the White House should think twice before focusing too intently on the current U.S. petro-economy. Petro-economies can become overly vulnerable to cyclical changes in commodity prices or worse in the case of Venezuela and Russia. Ask any Alaskan who is studying the possibility of a state budget crisis, petro-linkages are a double-edged sword.

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The United States needs to stay the course on advancing its digital economy, even if that means reducing demand for oil. Here’s why:

China has recognized the strategic detriment of being too oil dependent when the United States is not and it is making a major energy pivot that could position itself to challenge U.S. energy dominance and even U.S. strategic pre-eminence. U.S. policy makers need to recognize this risk and take steps to mitigate it. As I explain in my latest article in Foreign Affairs, it is in the vital U.S. interest to remain in the Paris accord.

China is banking on clean energy technologies as major industrial exports that will compete with U.S. and Russian oil and gas and make China the renewable energy and electric vehicle superpower of a future energy world. According to the International Energy Agency, the Chinese public and private sectors will invest more than $6 trillion in low carbon power generation and other clean energy technologies by 2040. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that Beijing has spent as much as $47 billion so far supporting domestic solar panel manufacturing, an effort that allowed China to dominate the panel export market and cratered costs.

Chinese investment in battery technology is likely to have a similar effect on battery prices. Later this year, Goldman Sachs is bringing a $2 billion initial public offering to market for Chinese firm CATL that analysts are saying will quickly make the company the dominant battery manufacturer in the world. China is also betting big on electric vehicles, with BYD now the largest producer of electric vehicles in the world and another half dozen Chinese firms in the top twenty. Over a hundred Chinese companies currently make electric cars and buses. What’s more, China is hoping to bring all of its clean energy products to market as part of its $1.4 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, an infrastructure program designed to expand Beijing’s influence throughout Asia. To accomplish this, China is also working to dominate the financing of clean tech and renewable energy, opening the world’s largest carbon market and encouraging its major banks, including the People’s Bank of China, to promote and underwrite green bonds.

China’s goal is not just to reduce its own dependence on foreign oil and gas. It hopes to use its clean energy exports to challenge the United States’ leading role in many regional alliances and trading relationships as well as to fashion an international order more to its interests. Its clean energy pivot is providing a platform for Beijing to court countries in Europe, Central Asia, and Asia with offers of cheap finance, advanced energy and transportation infrastructure, and solutions to pollution and energy insecurity.

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That raises the question of how the United States will sustain its energy dominance if it abdicates its role in multinational settings that will determine global rulemaking for energy exports and greenhouse gas emissions. Presumably, China intends to fashion a global energy architecture that will favor its interests. At some point down the road, that will not be defending coal use. It will be to sell its clean energy technologies free of tariffs (and possibly aided by subsidies) while European, Chinese, and other nation’s fees on carbon emissions hamper U.S. oil and gas exports. It could also make Chinese, rather than U.S., standards for green finance, energy product labeling, and advanced vehicles the global standard.

The take away from this Chinese challenge is that the United States needs to find creative ways to meet its Paris climate accord commitments and continue to develop a substantive technology innovation and climate change policy approach. Washington should consider additional policies to promote private sector investment in clean energy, including allowing renewable energy investors to form master limited partnerships in the same way as their oil and gas compatriots. Washington should also consider new uses for natural gas and bio-methane that can help meet the U.S. emission reduction pledge and stay the course on automobile efficiency standards that contribute to our shrinking oil import bill.

During the Cold War, the United States rose to the task of reasserting itself in science when it realized the dire consequences of losing the space race. Meeting the challenge of China’s pivot to clean energy will be no different. The United States needs to work diligently inside and outside the Paris accord framework to fashion trade rules and carbon market systems that will accommodate U.S. oil and gas exports now and lay the groundwork to promote clean energy technologies in the future.

A version of this article first appeared as a “Gray Matters” column in the Houston Chronicle.

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