Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rocky Road To Energy Dominance

As Americans worry about Middle East oil supplies, a much bigger energy drama is playing out in Russia. The country now produces about as much oil as Saudi Arabia, exports about 4 million barrels a day and is unabashedly moving toward increasing production. When this is considered alongside Russia's probable dominance in the natural gas market over the coming decades, it becomes apparent that the most radical energy realignment in the world since the creation of OPEC and the 1973 Arab oil embargo is underway.

But the road to energy dominance is not proving an easy one. Late last month, the government of President Vladimir Putin arrested Mikhail Khodorkovsky on charges of fraud and tax evasion. Last week, the government impounded some 40 percent of Yukos shares. Whatever the reason, the Khodorkovsky arrest complicates Russia's energy future. Its ascendancy in the energy world has been an important counterbalance to the power of OPEC. Many in the West hoped it would also point the way to a new-style Russian economy and society.

Two decades ago, the Soviet Union's overreliance on oil revenues for foreign currency contributed to its demise. Some have worried that, in the wake of a collapse in the industrial sector after the fall of communism, Russia is now more dependent than ever on oil. But oil is only half of the story. The bigger Russian future is natural gas.

Gradually, over the last 15 years, the world -- led by the United States -- has moved toward making natural gas its fuel of choice. This is proving to be a revolutionary, though technologically disruptive, transition. But the benefits will prove considerable. Natural gas is a far more efficient and cleaner fuel that lends itself to the miniaturization of the engines it powers. It has a large role to play as we attempt to wean ourselves from carbon fuels.

There are many signs of this shift, the most obvious being that nearly all of the power plants planned or under construction in the United States will run on natural gas. Consequently, the United States will soon become a massive importer of natural gas in the form of liquefied natural gas.

With by far the world's largest reserves, perhaps as much as 40 percent of the recoverable natural gas on the planet, Russia will be in the driver's seat for generations to come. China has increased its energy demand by an astonishing 110 percent in the last decade, and its needs continue to rise. All of this adds up to one thing: Russia's dominance in energy. That is why the world will be watching closely as Putin moves forward -- both with his prosecution of Khodorkovsky and with his country's move to exploit its considerable energy reserves.

Michael J. Economides is a professor at the University of Houston and chief technology officer of the Texas Energy Center; Ronald E. Oligney is director of the center. This comment is excerpted from a piece that first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.