Autocratic producers, largely Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Venezuela, and China, and democratic consumers, fossil fuel-dependent nations, largely the so-called Global South, are convening and uniting over oil, gas, coal, petrochemicals, natural gas-derived fertilizers, and mined raw materials. This trend is detrimental for both the global climate and the United States.
China straddles both worlds as the largest producer and consumer of coal in the world and the second-largest consumer of all fossil fuels after the United States. The United States is the largest producer of oil and gas for now, but while government policies tamp down investment in future domestic production, U.S. energy companies scour the world to increase production to serve global markets.
It’s the autocratic countries who produce the fossil fuels that benefit from American production decline. This is due to the fact that the major democratic countries of the Global South— including India, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, etc.—who buy oil and gas products, need to feed their people, fuel their vehicles, and, in general, sustain, grow, and develop their economies at reasonable cost.
Autocratic Russia, a giant energy producer, continues to sustain its economy and finance its war in Ukraine, playing defense and waiting for Western electorates to lose patience. Moscow counts on continued fossil fuel sales to consumer countries. Meanwhile, China is importing record amounts of oil and gas from Russia which makes China the largest financier of Russia’s war in Ukraine by far. China, courtesy of Saudi Arabia’s Aramco, is on the upswing in building new refineries, becoming a major petrochemical producer while U.S. energy policy to phase out fossil fuels has curtailed U.S. companies from making such investments.
Pursuing sweeping policies to address climate change, America and the West deride and downgrade the value of these lifeblood fossil fuel products for China (coal, oil, and gas), Russia (oil, gas, and coal), Saudi Arabia (oil and gas), and the relevant fossil fuel value of other producer nations. Western governments’ attitudes toward fossil fuels are derived from their fear of future climate change. Such attitudes create a deep and abiding conflict of interest over time between the West and both fossil fuel producers and consumers who see fossil fuel-dependent growth and development of their respective economies as paramount.
Herein lies the conundrum. If the United States and the West will not be major producers, where do consumers turn for their needed energy? Unfortunately, they turn to the producers who happen to be autocratic states—Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Venezuela— who respond to that need by increasing their oil and gas production to meet global demand while bolstering their economies and strengthening their governments in the process. Producers friendly to the West such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar are not the problem. Others are.
In a nutshell, the West’s cutbacks on fossil fuels are being replaced by fossil fuel production for consumers’ developing and expanding economies. And if producers make up for declining supply from America and the West to developing and growing consumers, which seems to be the case, the overall human contribution to climate change will remain essentially unchanged for now and actually grow into the future.
Interesting to note that the United States is now importing environmentally-dirty crude oil from autocratic and adversary producer Venezuela, rather than expanding its own domestic production. Natural gas previously exported from Russia to Europe will soon be replaced by Exxon and Chevron from Algeria.
Adding to the West’s dilemma regarding wind and solar energy alternatives, China dominates the world in the related technologies, manufacturing processes, and critical materials involved in the production of such “renewables” such as solar and wind energy. While U.S. politicians are ramping up talk about reducing dependence on China for critical items related to American economic and national security, a fossil fuels-denying West, ever more dependent on renewables like solar and wind, is subject to a new energy dependence on China.
It seems we are witnessing a geopolitical shift of historic proportions with fossil fuel-friendly China and the autocratic producers, the biggest winners, and fossil fuel-repressing democratic America and the West, the biggest losers. Plus, the democratic consumers are, more and more, beholden to the autocratic producers. You might think that energy supply and demand issues have something to do with some eighty nations staying neutral on the Ukraine war!
Russia and OPEC members have their single largest and ever-expanding market for their oil, gas, and raw material products in China, which in turn can increasingly manufacture whatever the producer nations need. China receives the fuels and raw materials to power and feed its vast energy-hungry, export-oriented industries and its immense agricultural economy. Other consumer nations will likewise purchase or trade for fossil fuel products from producers. The symbiosis between producers and consumers is clear.
And the West, including the United States, no matter how hard it tries, will continue to be dependent on fossil fuels from producers. The U.S. Energy Information Agency predicts that by 2050 the United States will still be 65 percent dependent on fossil fuels for its overall energy needs, as opposed to 79 percent today.
The Chinese manufacturing powerhouse and its rapidly advancing military will be enriched by an inevitable shift away from Western manufacturers who will see their costs and prices increase without reasonably priced fossil fuel-derived energy and derivative products.
China’s 1.5 billion people, repressed, surveilled, and cajoled, are also disciplined, educated, and increasingly productive and wealthy. With the growing sophistication of its military, autocratic China is the biggest winner of all from the present Western strategy to abandon fossil fuels. And if the United States and the West continue along their present path of shifting away from fossil fuels, it is quite possible that autocratic producers will dominate the world, and China, soon to surpass the United States as their biggest consumer, will be the dominant player.
Don Ritter holds a Science Doctorate from MIT and served fourteen years on the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce and Science and Technology Committees. After leaving Congress he created and led the National Environmental Policy Institute.