This blog posting is winging its way to Birmingham from Indianapolis in the land of the free. I'm here attending the spring meeting of State Law Resources (SLR), a network of mainly US law firms, each of which has a governmental affairs practice based in a state capital. Most of the firms are full service commercial law firms like my own, SGH Martineau, but the focus of SLR is on industry sectors heavily regulated by local state law, notably (but not exclusively) energy, health and insurance.
Our firm has a busy and well-respected energy team here in the UK and it is for this reason we have been a member of SLR for some years; indeed, we remain its only member outside of North America, and thanks I suspect in part to our Brussels office, we are badged as the 'EU' member firm.
Admiring European glances have focussed on the US energy revolution and in recent months we have become a useful link between our European energy network, the Association of European Energy Consultants (AEEC) and energy lawyers in the US. This culminated in the AEEC's first 'transatlantic summit' in Washington last month. This high profile event on the energy calendar featured representatives from the US energy industry as well as from the European Commission, and discussed the many parallels either side of the pond as energy law and policy continues to evolve rapidly.
SLR meetings, in contrast, are dominated by presentations and discussions led by clients of member firms. Indianapolis is no exception and we've been joined by one of Toyota's top government affairs people in the US.
Interestingly, he explains how, as a leading manufacturer, they go about engaging with (and influencing) law makers in the various state capitals on topics such as electric vehicle infrastructure (e.g., charging points), driver safety (e.g., use of mobile phones), driver-less vehicle technology, and competition law concerns around right to repair and access to IP for non-dealer repair shops.
For a large global company such as Toyota, navigating the US legal system, with its patchwork of local laws made by local legislatures in each of the 50 states, complementing federal law made in Washington DC, is a challenge which requires a veritable army of lawyers (of which the US has a bountiful resource, or course). For a European, with elections looming, it is tempting to draw parallels with our own system of EU law making and the frequent tension between the European Commission and the 28 member states.
As co-chair of the Energy, Environmental and Natural Resources Committee, it's my job to help devise topics for discussion. All the talk amongst the energy lawyers here is of the shale gas revolution and how it has transformed the US, so it's fitting that we've got two shale gas speakers. One is from the Natural Gas Alliance, the US trade association which represents the independent gas exploration and production companies, and he explains how the US is now the world's no. 1 natural gas producer, having overtaken Russia; the shale reserves in the US are vast.
The shale revolution came about here as two technologies developed and combined - hydraulic fracturing (the process of extracting gas from rock deep below the surface by cracking it apart with a mix of water, sand and chemicals injected at high pressure) and horizontal drilling (traditionally, gas has been extracted through vertical well shafts).
The US embarked on the exploitation of its huge resource with such speed that the large quantities of gas produced have now made the US self-sufficient. Indeed, to complement the clutch of export terminals given the green light in the Gulf Coast, designed mainly to serve the Indian and Chinese markets, the coal import terminal in Maryland on the east coast is currently being converted into a liquefied natural gas export facility. I suspect we could even be importing US gas ourselves in a few years.
It's clear from what people are saying here that the shale revolution is not just about energy self-sufficiency. The glut of gas on the market has created record low energy prices and this has led to a resurgence in US manufacturing; look no further than the succession of closed steel mills which have been acquired for re-opening; and Dow Chemicals has just committed to a new huge R&D centre for 2,000 employees in Texas.
The politicians here in the US are also keen to use their new-found ability to export gas to their advantage on the political stage as a counter-balance to reliance on Russia gas in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. That sounds great in theory, but prices are higher in Asia, and Eastern Europe lacks sizeable LNG import infrastructure. There is also a strong lobby in the US opposed to unlimited LNG exports - to date, only half a dozen or so export permits have been issued to US companies.
Back in Europe, however, there are many who look on with envy. But shale gas still has its critics, even in the US, and we've been hearing about the 'fractivisits' and 'pipeline-istas' who make life difficult for the drillers, and familiar concerns about use of water resources, road issues and infrastructure problems.
Interestingly, people here are saying that the key to unlocking the potential that shale has given to US industry is plugging the skills gap; getting youngsters into engineering school. A refrain we've heard frequently in the UK.
Thankfully, although the Americans work hard, they know how to relax. With two evenings of receptions and dinners behind me, all that's now left to look forward to is a visit to the home of US motor racing for the Indy 500 qualifying sessions and then my trip home.