Energy Revolution Will Reinvigorate Middle America

Oil and natural gas abundance has the potential of reinvigorating middle America, geographically and socially.

Bridge over the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee, January 18, 2010
Bridge over the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee, January 18, 2010 (Thomas Hawk)

Energy abundance made America an industrial superpower in the late nineteenth century and enabled it to become the world’s largest economy in the twentieth. Huge, untapped oil reserves and technological advances in natural gas extraction have the potential of cementing its status as the world’s industrial powerhouse in the twenty-first.

By some estimates, the United States possess more oil than Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia combined. The Government Accountability Office reported in May that up to three trillion barrels of oil are recoverable from shale between the states of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah — the equivalent of the entire world’s proven oil reserves!

Within less than a decade, the United States could surpass Russia and Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer. Writes Edward Luce in the Financial Times, “Most of the credit goes to private-sector innovators who took their cue from the high oil prices in the last decade to devise ways of tapping previously uneconomic underground reserves of ‘tight oil’ and shale gas.” He concludes, “Far from reaching its final frontier, America has discovered new ones under the ground.”

High oil prices have made oil and gas extraction from tar sands and shale profitable and sustained a boom in blue-collar job creation that could hardly have come at a better time. Four years after the financial crisis of 2008, the United States are still suffering over 8 percent unemployment but during that time, fracking alone has created up to 600,000 new jobs.

Particularly in the northern Appalachian mountain region, or “Rust Belt,” where most steel mills shut down long ago and the coal workforce has shrunk by 90 percent in the last forty years, working-class unemployment can be significantly reduced by the shale revolution.

Further west, “the new energy geography points toward a revival of the Mississippi-Ohio-Missouri river system as the axis of American growth,” writes Walter Russell Mead for The American Interest. Natural resources can be found largely in depopulated Midwestern and Plain states that are served by the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

Few places are going to look more secure in the twenty-first century than America between the Rockies and the Appalachians, between the Gulf of Mexico and the Canadian frontier. Some of the world’s largest energy reserves will be sited next to the world’s most fertile crop land. Geopolitically, few places on earth are as secure from war; politically few can match its record of stable governance; legally, few offer as much protection for property rights and few have as long a record of offering foreign investors the equal protection of the law.

The Greater Mississippi Basin has by far the world’s most fertile and developed agricultural land. 139 million hectares of land are used for traditional crops across the region compared to 106 on the Eurasian Steppe and 65 on the North European Plain. The Ganges, Río de la Plata and Yellow River Basins are all smaller.

A major geographic advantage of the Mississippi Basin is that it has an extended network of tributary waterways that puts the bulk of prime agricultural land within two hundred kilometers of a navigable river. The cost of transport by water is roughly ten to thirty times cheaper than overland. Road and rail are still used for collection but nearly omnipresent river ports allow for the entirety of the basin’s farmers to easily and cheaply ship their products to markets all over the world.

At a time when American politics seems obsessed with decline and environmentalists in coastal states from California to New York to Washington are doing everything they can to stop the shale revolution — recognizing that it will delay the shift to “green” energy, if it ever occurs, by generations — Middle America, geographically and socially, stands to benefit enormously from the energy transformation that will put the United States, once again, on top of the world.