From Scarcity to Abundance: The Changing Dynamics of Energy Conflict

11 February 2015

Energy security and geopolitics have played a pivotal role in international affairs for a very long time, ever since the development of oil-powered vehicles and weapons of war. Until recently, the geopolitics of energy have largely been governed by perceptions of scarcity—the assumption that oil and other energy reserves were relatively limited, and that competition over their exploitation would lead to recurring crisis and conflict. However, the recent utilization of advanced extractive technologies—including deep-sea drilling and hydraulic fracturing—have resulted in unexpected production gains and fostered a sense that abundance, rather than scarcity, will govern the future energy picture. This perception, in turn, has led to expectations that conflict over energy will diminish. But the deployment of the new technologies has engendered new conflicts of its own, as in the disputes over offshore oil and natural gas deposits in the Arctic Ocean and the East and South China Seas. Also, many nations view energy as a critical source of wealth and power, and so they continue to spar over the ownership and exploitation of valuable reserves. Accordingly, the prospects for relative abundance are not likely to eliminate the risk of conflict over critical energy supplies.