The revolution in discovery and exploitation of shale oil and gas in the American heartland, starting with North Dakota, is turning global energy economics and, potentially, politics upside-down. It's also prompting major shifts in strategy for the big brands on the energy map in the United States and the world.
ExxonMobil became the latest iconic energy brand to boost its stake in the Bakken Shale formation when last week it agreed to buy assets of Denbury Resources there for $1.6 billion in cash and interests in two oil fields. The move increased Exxon's acreage in the formation, centered under North Dakota, which has helped make the state the second-largest oil-producing state in America, after Texas.
Royal Dutch Shell also has invested more in such "unconventional" oil assets lately, recently buying $2 billion worth of such properties from Chesapeake Energy. And in efforts to exploit the growing potential of shale reserves worldwide, Chevron is helping the Chinese company Sinopec.
For American energy independence and U.S.-based brands that mostly control domestic energy reserves, "It's already had an impact," Ed Morse, an energy expert at Citigroup, told the Wall Street Journal. "In the geopolitics of energy, there are always winners and losers. The U.S. is going to win big, and someone else is going to lose big."
The practice isn't without controversy, of course. Environmentalists and other opponents say that another set of "losers" in the rise of the fracking technology for unleashing such reserves will be residents of areas that are rife with energy exploration. There are concerns about groundwater contamination by some of the chemical components of hydraulic fracturing (more popularly known as fracking) for natural gas.
The lines are divided on the hot-button issue, with every company using fracking techniques defending its practices as environmentally sound, and environmentalists rallying against the practice — today accusing states of failing to sufficiently monitor drilling companies.
In New York, meanwhile, a judge dismissed a suit brought by environmentalists to halt fracking in the Delaware River Basin. All of which won't stop Exxon and other energy giants from stopping one of America's most significant commercial cornucopias one single bit. As Fortune put it earlier this year, "the fracking party has just begun."