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What good are economists, including oil and fuel economists?

RobertShillerNobel-Prize winning economist, Dr. Robert Shiller, is one of the top economists in the nation, actually, let’s make him an imperialist, in the world. He is best known, perhaps, as the co-creator of the S&P/Case Shiller Home Price Indices. His books on economic theory and issues populate many college classrooms and personal libraries, including mine. He is an impressive, smart and accomplished intellectual giant.

It’s tough, given Dr. Shiller’s pedigree, to even suggest a bit of criticism. But because I think it’s important to current policy debates concerning economic, energy and transportation fuel policies, I do want to take issue with his recent short piece in Project Syndicate (What Good Are Economists?). In it, he defends economists and their mistakes concerning economic forecasts.

Shiller seems oversensitive to the pervasive criticism of economists in the media and literature. Because of the esteem with which he deservedly is held, his somewhat-thin response may mute a needed dialogue concerning the weaknesses attributed by respected critics of the work of economists. Shiller admits they failed to warn the nation in advance of economic downturns as far back as 1920-1921. By implication, he also suggests that because of this fact economists did not have a major impact or may have even had a negative impact at the policy table and often gave up their places to business and political leaders. Certainly Dr. Lawrence Summers and Alan Greenspan have not escaped criticism for failing to predict both the recent recession and for instituting policies that may have exacerbated the recession itself.

Over the past several years, many Americans have been frustrated by the errors of omission and commission made by respected economists from America’s think tanks and its government institutions, like the EIA, concerning analyses, forecasts and predications of the price of oil and gas as well as, demand for and supply of fuel and the role alternative fuels have and will play in America’s future economy. Their numbers and analyses often seem like the “once a day” or maybe “once a month” variety. Many of you don’t remember the famous (now clearly seen as a sexist) joke by I believe Ilka Chase in the old Reader’s Digest that a “woman’s mind is cleaner than a man’s because she changes it so often.” The comment now fits many energy-related economists. Their minds may be cleaner than those of normal folks because, as seen in many of their energy and fuel forecasts, they change it so often. But by doing so, they present obstacles to government, congressional leaders, industry, academic and environmental officials anxious to develop sound energy and fuel policies and program initiatives.

Can you name — on more than one hand — the economists who predicted the recent significant decline of oil and gasoline prices? Can you find consensus among economists concerning oil and fuel prices in the future? Can you identify economists willing to go out on a limb and describe, other than in generalities, the causes of the current decline in prices? Put two economists in a room and you will get three or more different reasons, most resting on opinion and not on hard data. Paraphrasing, oh, yes, the reason(s) are (or is): the Saudi Kingdom and its unwillingness to limit production and desires to gain market share; another favorite: the American producer’s recent oil shale largess is too good to pass up by slowing down drilling significantly; and don’t forget: the rise of the value of the dollar and the fall off in travel mileages resulting from the global recession. For the politically susceptible and sometimes cynical economists, throw in the genius of American and Saudi foreign policy as a factor. They fail to sleep at night, believing the decline is the purposeful result of the State Department and/or their counterparts in the Kingdom. If you keep prices low, who does it hurt most…Russia, Iran and Venezuela, of course!

There are many theories concerning recent price declines but no real hard answers based on empirical evidence and factor analysis.

Energy and transportation fuel economists, at times, seem to practice art rather than science. Diverse methodologies used to forecast oil and gasoline prices; demand and supply are unable to easily manage or accommodate the likely involved complex economic, technical, geopolitical and behavioral factors. As a result, specific cause and effect relationships among and between independent and dependent variables concerning oil and gas trends are difficult to discern by expert and lay folks alike.

Understandably, American leaders often appear to value what they feel are the good artists among economists, particularly if they lend credence in their speeches and reports to their own views or ideological predilections. Shiller’s question about economists in his piece is not a difficult one to answer. He asks, “If they were unable to foresee something (the 2007-2009 financial crisis and recession) so important to people’s wellbeing, what good are they?”

The best in the profession have provided insights into the economy and what makes it tick or not tick. They, at times, have increased public understanding of corrective public and private-sector actions to right a weak economy. They, again at times, have helped lead to at least temporary consensus concerning options related to fiscal and monetary policy changes and the need for regulations of private sector activities. But Dr. Shiller goes too far when he offers a mea culpa for the profession by comparing its failure to predict economic trends to doctors who fail to predict disease. Doctors probably do suffer more than economists for their mistakes, particularly when their analyses result in increased rates of morbidity and mortality. At least economists can bury their errors in next week’s or next month’s studies or reports; many times doctors can escape their errors only by burying their patients. The article could have been a provocative and an important one, given Dr. Shiller’s justifiable stature. It might have stimulated self examination among some of the best and brightest if it had linked weaknesses in economic forecasts to proposals to strengthen the rigor of methodological approaches. Presently, the brief article regrettably reads as an excuse for professional deficiencies. Res ipsa loquitur.

corn-ethanol

Does ethanol have to be hurt by falling gas prices?

Jim Lane, editor and publisher of Biofuels Digest, is one person who thinks alternative fuels aren’t necessarily going to be hurt by the huge drop in the price of crude oil.

In a post on the Digest Jan. 6, Lane lays out the rather complicated case of why it doesn’t pay right now to be dumping your alternate-energy stocks. That’s been the reaction so far to anything related to the price of oil. But Lane says there are special aspects of alternatives like ethanol that will be affected in a different way.

In the first place, Lane notes that while crude oil prices have been falling, ethanol prices have been falling, too. Since last June, crude oil has fallen from $115 a barrel to under $50, a remarkable 60 percent drop. Yet ethanol has fallen as well, from $2.13 a gallon to $1.55 a gallon, a formidable 27 percent drop. This is due mainly to the falling price of corn, which has been at its lowest level in recent years. A bushel of corn fell over the same period from $4.19 a bushel to $3.78, a 10 percent drop. In this way, ethanol is only marginally dependent on the price of oil and can show its own price pattern.

One thing worth noting is that there is a certain amount of elasticity in American driving. People tend to increase their driving range when the price of gasoline goes down. This is particularly true when it comes to taking vacations, which tend to be a long-term planning effort. If the price of gasoline stays down through next summer, people are more likely to increase gas consumption. The fact is that gasoline demand has actually reached its highest point in the last few months since the price of oil began to fall, as the following graph indicates:

graphic

Now drivers are required to include 10 percent ethanol in each gallon of gas. Therefore, ethanol has a fixed market. Driving has been declining in recent years, which is one reason that the Renewable Fuel Standard has been under fire – because the absolute amount of ethanol required has exceeded the 10 percent requirement in relation to the amount of gasoline consumed. Refiners and oil companies must buy this amount of ethanol. This is the reason the Environmental Protection Agency has been holding back on setting an RFS for 2014 — because the original amount prescribed was going to exceed the 10 percent figure. If people start taking advantage of lower gas prices and start consuming more gasoline, the amount of ethanol required will grow. “(W)e should be seeing a 2+% increase in gasoline demand, and that will take some pressure off the ethanol blend wall,” Lane writes. It might make EPA’s decision easier, if it ever gets around to setting a number.

Just to emphasize this point, an RIN — Renewable Index Number — is required by the EPA to prove that a refinery has been adding ethanol up to the 10 percent mark. The price of RINs has actually been rising as gas prices have fallen. As Lane writes: “Part of the reason that the ethanol market is holding up relatively well in tough times is the impact of the Renewable Fuel Standard, and its traded RIN system. RIN prices have jumped as oil prices have slumped — and a $0.76 increase in the RIN value of a gallon of fuel is a striking increase in value.”

So all is not dark for the future of alternatives. Ethanol’s place is secure, despite the fall in gasoline prices. Remember, it’s not that demand for gas is falling, but people are spending less for what they get. If methanol is given a chance, it might turn out to be more invulnerable, since it’s not tied to corn prices but to natural gas, which we seem to have in even greater abundance than oil. Electric cars also don’t lose their appeal, since much of their appeal is getting off gas entirely and unbuckling from the oil companies. It may not be time to abandon your stock in alternative energies quite yet.

PUMP-Poster

Press release: PUMP coming to iTunes on Tuesday, Jan. 13

EYE-OPENING DOCUMENTARY PUMP, NOW AVAILABLE ON iTUNES, IS THE MOVIE THAT WILL CHANGE YOUR ATTITUDE ABOUT FUEL FOREVER.

NARRATED BY JASON BATEMAN

 

Watch the trailer on YouTube

Download the film on iTunes

 

LOS ANGELES, CA, January 8 2015 – After a successful limited theatrical release this fall, PUMP will be available January 13, 2015 to a wider audience. Submarine Deluxe, in association with Fuel Freedom Foundation and iDeal Film Partners, are digitally releasing the film exclusively through iTunes.

The inspiring and eye-opening documentary conveys the story of America’s addiction to oil, from its corporate conspiracy beginnings to its current monopoly today, and explains clearly and simply how we can end it – and finally win choice at the pump. Directed by Josh Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell, with narration by Jason Bateman, PUMP is an important film for anyone who drives or owns a car.

Today, oil is our only option of transportation fuel at the pump. Our exclusive use of it has drained our wallets, increased air pollution and sent our sons and daughters to war in faraway lands. PUMP shows us how, through the use of a variety of replacement fuels, we can fill up our cars with cheaper, cleaner, American made fuels – and in the process, create more jobs for a stronger, healthier economy.

Notable experts such as John Hofmeister, former President of Shell Oil US; Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors; Peter Goldmark, former president of the Rockefeller Foundation; and other noteworthy figures are also featured in the film, and all share their passionate views and knowledge.

PUMP will inform the audience how to change their lives for the better: convert cars to run on multiple fuels, save money, create jobs and improve the environment.

For additional information please contact one of the following representatives:

BIG TIME PR

Sylvia Desrochers – Sylvia@bigtime-pr.com- 424.208.3496

Jasmine Davis – [email protected] – 424.208.3496

On the other hand — Steven Mueller, Southwestern Energy

steve-muellerLet’s apply a bit of Talmudic dialect to the visible dialogue now going on in the nation concerning decisions to drill for more natural gas and related considerations concerning the effect that using natural gas as a transportation fuel will have on the environment.

Now on the one hand, the price of natural gas, like gasoline, has significantly decreased over the past months and some producers seem to be abandoning or limiting production at least for a time. To many, drilling in shale seems too costly for so little revenue per thousands of cubic feet. Besides, they say there is now too much natural gas on the market for too little demand and available infrastructure to get it where it’s supposed to be. “After so much hype and billions of dollars of investment, the nation is deluged with gas and not enough pipelines…One energy company after another, year after year, has written down its investments in Arkansas and in Texas and Louisiana,” said Clifford Kraus in The New York Times.

So far, the Times’ description of the gas market is relatively similar to the analyses of most experts. But don’t despair; lately, the definition of “expert” has taken a beating in light of the lack of confidence in the stability and the almost weekly amendments to projections of natural gas supply and demand. However, because the national unemployment rate will go up significantly if we abandon experts, let’s not abandon them, for the time being. Let’s, however, not grant them grace, adoration and pedestal-like obedience. They need to do better concerning use of data and methodologies. Our knowledge concerning the natural gas profile is at best uneven and at worst…well, you insert the word.

Try looking on the other hand of iconoclast Steven Mueller, CEO of Southwestern Energy. Mueller does not believe that current data concerning the relatively depressed condition of the natural gas market should predetermine his own and his company’s decisions. His actions, some time ago, in buying shale fields cheap and in discovering new fields have turned Southwestern Energy into one of the top natural gas producers.

Mueller shares the view that the natural gas market is now down and that some companies are pulling out, at least temporarily, or reducing production. But where other producers and analysts see problems, he sees opportunities. According to The Times, Southwestern just put $5 billion down to develop 413,000 acres of reserves in the Marcellus and Utica shale fields of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Similarly, he acquired another gas play in Pennsylvania for $300 million.

According to Mueller, gas will soon be moving up in price because of demand. He notes, “The situation is not as bad as the industry thinks it is….I am looking at it from a different angle and I think the odds are in my favor.”

Mueller seems like he is out of place using the other hand in the oil and gasoline industry. While his company’s activities are not without environmental problems and critics, he is unusual in that he has taken the lead among companies in searching for international and national solutions to methane leakage as well as extensive water usage with respect to fracking. Significantly, he has also seen benefits, where other natural gas industry titans have stayed mum, concerning the long-term use of natural gas for fueling hydrogen-fuel cars and for other transportation fuels. Additionally, Mueller views the continued conversion of coal-fired electric plants to natural gas as a done deal and a deal that will help sustain the industry and the environment.

Checking Google for recent stories about Mueller and other CEOs in the natural gas industry suggests that Mueller, contrary to most of the others, will soon be ripe either for sainthood or tenure at Mad Magazine. What? Me worry?

Sure, he has some critics who indicate his bet on natural gas is risky and a few, implicitly, suggest he will fail (some pundits and competitors no doubt would not be too sad if he does). Most Google entries, however, view him as somewhat of an outlier in the industry, whose commitment to growth has saved his company. They grant him the benefit of their respective doubts about his imperialism concerning acquisition of natural gas plays. Some view his environmental and GHG sensitivities as necessary in helping the industry move forward as a good or reasonably good citizen. Whatever he is or will be, Mueller will not be one to devote lots of time to the thought processes associated with on the one hand, on the other hand. He seems to like being a permanent on the other hand.

“Natural Gas: The Fracking Fallacy” — a debate over the recent article in Nature

Nature ChartT’was the week before Christmas, a night during Chanukah and a couple of weeks before Kwanzaa, when, all through the nation, many readers more interested in America’s energy supply than in the fate of Sony’s “The Interview,” were stirring before their non-polluting fireplaces (I wish). They were trying to grasp and relish the unique rhetorical battle between The University of Texas (UT), the EIA and the recent December article in Nature, titled “Natural Gas: The Fracking Fallacy,” by Mason Inman.

Let me summarize the written charges and counter charges between a respected journal, university and government agency concerning the article. It was unusual, at times personal and often seemingly impolite.

Unusual, since a high-ranking federal official in the EIA responded directly to the article in Nature, a well-thought of journal with an important audience, but relatively minimal circulation. His response was, assumedly, based on a still-unfinished study by a group of UT scholars going through an academic peer review process. The response was not genteel; indeed, it was quite rough and tough.

Clearly, the stakes were high, both in terms of ego and substance. As described in Nature, the emerging study was very critical of EIA forecasts of natural gas reserves. Assumedly EIA officials were afraid the article, which they believed contained multiple errors and could sully the agency’s reputation. On the other hand, if it was correct, the UT authors would be converted into courageous, 21st century versions of Diogenes, searching for energy truths. The article would win something like The Pulitzer, EIA would be reprimanded by Congress and the UT folks would secure a raise and become big money consultants to a scared oil and gas industry.

Just what did the Nature article say? Succinctly: The EIA has screwed up. Its forecasts over-estimate America’s natural gas reserves by a significant amount. It granted too much weight to the impact of fracking and not enough precision to its analysis of shale play areas as well as provide in-depth resolution and examination of the sub areas in major shale plays. Further, in a coup de grace, the author of the Nature piece apparently, based on his read of the UT study, faults the EIA for “requiring” or generally placing more wells in non-sweet-spot areas, therefore calculating more wells than will be developed by producers in light of high costs and relatively low yields. Succinctly, the EIA is much too optimistic about natural gas production through 2040. UT, according to Nature, suggests that growth will rise slowly until early in the next decade and then begin to decline afterwards through at least 2030 and probably beyond.

Neither Wall Street nor producers have reacted in a major way to the Nature article and the still (apparently) incomplete UT analysis. No jumping out of windows! No pulling out hairs! Whatever contraction is now being considered by the industry results from consideration of natural gas prices, the value of the dollar, consumer demand, the slow growth of the economy and surpluses.

Several so-called experts have responded to the study in the Journal piece. Tad Patzek, head of the UT Austin department of petroleum and geosystems, engineers and “a member of the team,” according to the Journal, indicated that the results are “bad news.” The push to extract shale gas quickly and export, given UT’s numbers, suggests that “we are setting ourselves up for a major fiasco.” Economist and Professor Paul Stevens from Chatham House, an international think tank, opines “if it begins to look as if it’s going to end in tears in the U.S., that would certainly have an impact on the enthusiasm (for exports) in different parts of the word.”

Now, generally, a bit over the top, provocative article in a journal like Nature commending someone else’s work would have the author of the article and UT principal investigators jumping with joy. The UT researchers would have visions of more grants and, if relevant, tenure at the University. The author would ask for possible long-term or permanent employment at Nature or, gosh, maybe even the NY Times. Alas, not to happen! The UT investigators joined with the EIA in rather angry, institutional and personal responses to the Journal. Both the EIA and UT accused Nature of intentionally “misconstruing data and “inaccurate…distorted reporting.”

Clearly, from the non-scholarly language, both institutions and their very senior involved personnel didn’t like the article or accompanying editorial in Nature. EIA’s Deputy Administrator said that the battle of forecasts between the EIA and UT, pictured in the Journal, was imagined and took both EIA’s and UT’s initiatives out of context. He went on to indicate that both EIA’s and UT efforts are complementary, and faulted Nature for not realizing that EIA’s work reflected national projections and UT’s only four plays. Importantly, the Deputy suggested that beyond area size and method of counting productivity, lots of other factors like well spacing, drilling costs, prices and shared infrastructure effect production. They were not mentioned as context or variables in the article.

The principal investigators from UT indicated that positing a conflict between the EIA and themselves was just wrong. “The EIA result is, in fact, one possible outcome of our model,” they said. The Journal author “misleads readers by suggesting faults in the EIA results without providing discussion on the importance of input assumptions and output scenarios. “Further, the EIA results were not forecasts but reference case projections. The author used the Texas study, knowing it was not yet finished, both as to design and peer review. Adding assumed insult to injury, it quoted a person from UT, Professor Patzek, more times than any other. Yet, he was only involved minimally in the study and he, according to the EIA, has been and is a supporter of peak oil concepts, thus subject to intellectual conflict of interests.

Nature, after receiving the criticism from UT and EIA, stood its ground. It asserted that it combined data and commentary from the study with interviews of UT personal associated with the study. It asked for but only received one scenario on gas plays by EIA — the reference case. It was not the sinner but the sinned against.

Wow! The public dialogue between UT, the EIA and Nature related to the article was intense and, as noted earlier, unusual in the rarefied academically and politically correct atmosphere of a university, a federal agency and a “scientific” journal. But, to the participants’ credit, their willingness to tough it out served to highlight the difficulty in making forecasts of shale gas reserves, in light of the multitude of land use, geotechnical, economic, environmental, community and market variables involved. While it is not necessary or easy to choose winners or losers in the dialogue, because of its “mince no words” character, it, hopefully, will permit the country, as a whole, to ultimately win and develop a methodology to estimate reserves in a strategic manner. This would be in the public interest as the nation and its private sector considers expanding the use of natural gas in transportation, converting remaining coal-fired utilities to environmentally more friendly gas-powered ones and relaxing rules regulating natural gas exports. We remain relying on guesstimates concerning both supply and demand projections. Not a good place to be in when the stakes are relatively high with respect to the health and well-being of the nation.

On a personal note, the author of the article in Nature blamed, in part, the EIA’s inadequate budget for what he suggested were the inadequacies of the EIA’s analysis. Surprise, given what the media has often reported as the budget imperialism of senior federal officials, the Deputy Administrator of EIA, in effect, said hell no, we had and have the funds needed to produce a solid set of analyses and numbers, and we did. Whether we agree with his judgments or not, I found his stance on his budget refreshing and counterintuitive.

Four new anticipated novels about the decline of oil and gas prices

Harlequin novel cover“We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge,” said John Naisbitt, American author and public speaker. Because of this fact, intuition and instinct, rather than rational thinking, often guides leadership behavior. Guess right, based on what your intuitive self or instinct tells you concerning your iterative policy decisions — particularly the big ones — and the payoff for you and the nation may well be significant. Guess wrong, and the nation could be hurt in various ways and you might not be around for a long time, or get buried in an office close to a windowless washroom. Charles Lindblom, noted political scientist, probably said it correctly when he noted that in complex environments we often make policy by “muddling through.”

Confusion reigns and analyses are opaque and subject to quick amendment concerning the current, relatively rapid decline in oil and gasoline prices. Indeed, key government institutions such as the EIA (Energy Information Administration) and the IEA (International Energy Agency) appear to change their predictions of prices of both, almost on a daily basis. Oil and gas production, as well as price evaluations and predictions resulting from today’s imprecise methodologies and our inability to track cause-and-effect relationships, convert into intriguing fodder for novels. They do not often lend themselves to strategic policy direction on the part of both public and private sector. Sometimes, they do seem like the stuff of future novels, part fiction, and, perhaps, part facts.

Ah … the best potential novels on the decline of oil and gas, particularly ones based on foreign intrigue, will likely provide wonderful bedtime reading, even without the imputed sex and content of the old Harlequin book covers and story lines. Sometimes their plots will differ, allowing many hours of inspirational reading.

Here are some proposed titles and briefs on the general theme lines for four future novels:

An Unholy Alliance: The Saudis and Qatar have joined together in a new alliance of the willing, after secret conversations (likely in a room under a sand dune with air conditioning built by Halliburton, in an excavated shale play in the U.S., a secret U.S. spaceship, or Prince Bandar’s new jet). They have agreed to resist pressure from their colleagues in OPEC and keep both oil production and prices low. By doing so, they and their OPEC friends would negatively affect the Russian and Iranian economy and limit ISIS’s ability to convert oil into dollars. Why not? The Russians and the Shiite-dominated Iranians have supported Syria’s Assad and threated the stability of Iraq. Qatar and the Saudis support the moderate Syrian rebels (if we can find them) but not ISIS, and are afraid that Iran wants to develop hegemony over Iraq and the region, if they end up with the bomb. Further, ISIS, even though it’s against Assad, is not composed of the good kind of Sunnis, and has learned a bit from the Saudis about evil doings. If ISIS succeeds in enlarging the caliphate, it will threaten their kingdoms and the Middle East. According to a mole in the conversations, Russia was really thrown into the mix because, sometimes, it doesn’t hurt to show that you might be helping the West while paying attention to market share.

OPEC in Fantasy Land: Most OPEC members see U.S. oil under their bed at night and have recurring nightmares. “Why,” they asked, “can’t we go back to the future; the good old days when OPEC controlled or significantly influenced oil production and prices in the world?” Several members argued for a counter intuitive agreement.

Let’s surprise the world and go against our historical behavior. Let’s keep prices low, even drive them lower. It will be tough on some of us, whose budgets and economy depend on high oil prices per barrel, but perhaps our “partner” nations who have significant cash reserves, like my brothers (the hero of this novel started to say sisters, but just couldn’t do it) in the Kingdom, can help out.

Driving prices lower, agreed the Saudis, will increase our collective market share (really referring to Saudi Arabia), and may permanently mute any significant competition from countries such as Russia, Mexico, Iraq, Venezuela, and others. But, most importantly, it will probably undercut U.S. producers and lead to a cutback in U.S. production. After all, U.S. production costs are generally higher than ours. Although some delegates questioned comparative production cost numbers and the assumption that the U.S. and its consumer-driven politics will fold, the passion of the Saudis will win the day. OPEC will decide to continue at present production levels and become the Johnny Manziels of oil. Money, money, money? Conspiracy, conspiracy, conspiracy!

Blame it on the Big Guys: The U.S. will not escape from being labeled as the prime culprit in some upcoming novels on oil. The intuitive judgments will go something like this: Don’t believe what you hear! U.S. producers, particularly the big guys, while worried about the fall in oil and gas prices, on balance, believe both will have intermediate and long-term benefits. They have had it their way for a long time and intuitively see a rainbow around every tax subsidy corner.

Why? Are they mad? No? Their gut, again, tells them that what goes down must come up, and they are betting for a slow upward trend next on the following year. Meanwhile, technology has constrained drilling costs. Most feel they can weather the reduced prices per barrel and per gallon. But unlike the Saudis and other OPEC members, they are not under the literal gun to meet national budget estimates concerning revenue. Like the Saudis, however, with export flexibility in sight from Congress, many producers see future market share as a major benefit.

Split Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personalities exist among the U.S. producers. Jekyll, reflecting the dominant, intuitive feeling, supports low prices. The Saudis and OPEC can be beaten at their own game. We have more staying power and can, once and for all time, reduce the historic power of both concerning oil. While we are at it, big oil can help the government put economic and political pressure on Russia, Iran and ISIS, simultaneously. Wow, we may be able to get a grant, change our image, a Medal of Freedom and be included in sermons on weekends!

Hyde, who rarely shows up at the oil company table until duty calls, now joins the group. He offers what he believes is sage, intuitive advice. He is the oldest among the group and plays the “you’re too young to know card” a bit, much to the chagrin of his younger colleagues. He expresses some rosy instincts about the oil market but acknowledges the likelihood that the future is uncertain and, no matter what, price cycles will continue. He acknowledges that there might be a temporary reduction of the political pressure to open up the fuel markets and to develop alternative fuels because of present relatively low prices. However, based on talking to his muses — both liberals and free market conservatives — and reading the New York Times, he suggests that it might not be a bad idea to explore joining with the alternative fuel folks. Indeed, Hyde indicates that he favors adding alternative fuel production to the production menu of many oil companies. If this occurred, oil companies could hedge bets against future price gyrations and maybe even win back some public support in the process. The industry also might be able to articulate their overblown claim that the “drill, baby, drill” mantra will make the U.S. oil independent. (At this point, the background music in the room becomes quite romantic, and angelic figures appear!) Hyde doubt that going after global market share would bring significant or major early rewards because of current regulations concerning exports and may interfere with the health of the industry in the future as well as get in the way of the country’s still-evolving foreign policy objectives.

Tough sell, however! Contrary to Hyde’s desires, Jekyll carries the day and “kill the bastards” (assumedly the Saudis) becomes the marching orders or mantra. Let’s go get ‘em. Market share belongs to America. Let’s go see our favorite congressperson. We helped him or her get elected; now is the time for him or her to help us eliminate export barriers. A U.S. flag emerges in the future novel. Everyone stands. The oil groupies are in tears. Everybody is emotional. Even Hyde breaks down and, unabashedly, cries.

David and Goliath: Israel has also become a lead or almost lead character in many potential novels on oil. According to its story line, because of Israel’s need for certainty concerning U.S. defense commitments, it has convinced the “best in the west” to avoid a significant reduction in drilling for and the production of oil. Israel advises the U.S. to extend its security-related oil reserves! Glut and surplus are undefined terms. Compete with the Saudis. Drive the price of oil lower and weaken your and our enemies, particularly Iran and Russia. The U.S. should play a new and more intense oil market role. For some, an alliance among U.S.-Israel and other western nations to keep oil and gas prices low is not unimaginable and, indeed, seems quite possible. What better way to anesthetize Iran and Russia? Better than war! An Iran and a Russia unable to unload their oil at what it believes are prices sufficient to support their national budgets would be weakened nations, unable to sustain themselves and meet assumed dual objectives: defense and butter. Finally, what more “peaceful” way to deal with Hezbollah and Hamas, to some extent, than to cut off Iran’s ability to lend them support?

Each of the future novels summarized above clearly suggests some reality driven by what we know. But overall, each one has a multitude of equally intuitive critics with different facts, hypotheses, intuition and instincts. As indicated earlier, it is too bad we cannot generate better more stable analyses and predictions. For now, however, just realize how complex it is to rest policy as well as behavior on, many times, faulty projections and intuition or instinct. Borrowing a quote by the noted comic and philosopher, George Carlin, “tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority will believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure.” Similarly, restating but changing and adding words, a quote from the Leonard Bernstein of science, Carl Sagan, that the nuclear arms race (if it does occurs in the Middle East) will be like many “sworn enemies waist-deep in gasoline,” the majority with many matches and one or two with only a few matches.

Novels and Alternative Fuels:

Where does this all leave us with respect to alternative fuels and open fuel markets? Too many producers and their think tank friends believe that low oil and gas prices will reduce the likelihood that alternative fuels will become a real challenge to them in the near future. They, instinctively, opine that investors, without patient money, will not risk funding the development of alternative fuels because prices of oil and gas are so low. Further, their “house” economists argue that consumers will be less prone to switch from gasoline to alternative replacement fuels in light of small or non-existent price differentials between the two.

The truth is that we just don’t know yet how the market for alternative fuels and its potential investors will respond in the short term to the oil and gas price crash. Similarly, we don’t know how long relatively low prices at the pump will last. We do know that necessity has been and, indeed, is now the mother (or father) of some very important U.S. innovations and investor cash. In this context, it is conceivable that some among the oil industry may well add alternative fuels to their portfolio to mute boom, almost boom and almost bust or bust periods that have affected the industry from time immemorial. Put another way, protecting the bottom line and sustaining predictable growth may well, in the future, mean investing in alternative fuels.

Low gas prices presently will likely be followed by higher prices. This is not a projection. History tells us this: importantly, lower gas prices now may well build a passionate coalition of consumers ready to, figuratively, march, if gas prices begin to significantly trend upward. The extra money available to consumers because “filling ‘er up” costs much less now, could well become part of household, political DNA. Keeping fuel prices in line for most consumers, long term, will require competition from alternative fuels — electricity, natural gas, natural gas-based ethanol, methanol, bio fuels, etc. Finally, while our better community-based selves may be dulled now by lower gas prices, most Americans will probably accept a better fuel mousetrap than gasoline because of their commitment to the long-term health and welfare of the nation. But the costs must be competitive with gasoline, and the benefits must be real concerning GHG reduction, an enhanced environment and less oil imports. My intuition and instincts (combined with numerous studies) tell me they will be! Happy Holidays!

CNG-pump

Will falling gas prices hurt alternative vehicles?

Everyone is saying that falling gas prices will ruin the market for alternative fuels and vehicles. But it isn’t time to give up on them now.
Ethanol and methanol are still two liquid fuels that will easily substitute for gasoline in our current infrastructure. Ethanol is making headway, particularly in the Midwest, where it is still cheaper than gasoline and has a lot of support in the farm economy. The big decision will come when the EPA finally sets the quota for ethanol consumption for 2015 – if the agency ever gets around to making a decision. (The decision has been postponed since last spring.) A high number should guarantee the sale of ethanol no matter what the price of gasoline.

That leaves methanol, the fuel that has the most potential to replace gasoline and would it fit right into our present infrastructure but must still run the gamut of EPA approval and would require a change in habits among motorists. Methanol is still relatively unknown among car owners and is hindered by people’s reluctance to try new things. But the six methanol plants that the Chinese are building in the Texas and Louisiana region could break the ice on methanol. The Chinese have 100,000 methanol cars on the road now and are shooting for 500,000 by 2015. Some of that methanol might end up in American engines as well.

Another alternative that is still in play is the electric car. In theory, electric cars should not be affected much by gas prices because that is an entirely different infrastructure. The appeal is not based on price so such as the idea of freeing yourself from the oil companies completely and relying on a source of energy.

The Nissan Leaf has not been badly hit by oil prices. Tesla’s cars, of course, have not gone mass market yet, but the company is relying on a new breed of consumer who does not worry too much about the price and will appreciate the car for its style and performance. Elon Musk has shown no indication of backing down on his great Gigafactory, and Tesla is still aiming to have the Model III (its third-generation vehicle, which will come at a much lower expected price point of $35,000) ready by 2017.

This leaves natural-gas-powered vehicles as the only group that might be hurt by falling gas prices, and here the news is not too good. Sales of vehicles that have compressed natural gas as their fuel declined 7.2 percent in November. As David Whiston, an analyst at Morningstar, told the Houston Chronicle’s Ryan Holeywell: “I hear all the time from dealers: As soon as gas starts to go down, people look at light trucks.”

CNG’s appeal has always been that it will be cheaper than regular gasoline, so plunging gas prices make it lose much of its appeal. It costs $5,000 to install a tank for CNG fuel, and that is not likely to attract a lot of takers with oil prices low. For a gas-electric hybrid, there is similar math. For the Toyota Corolla, the electric portion adds another $7,000 to the price. That’s why the CNG-based solutions never caught up with the light-duty vehicle. They are still attractive for high-mileage vehicles like buses and garbage trucks. “For the consumers doing the math, if gas goes below $3 per gallon, the payback period goes out a number of years,” Whiston told Holeywell. “And the break-even point makes sense for fewer people.”

The collapse in gas prices is not the end of the road for alternative fuels. In a couple of months, the price may be up again, and all those people who have rushed out to buy light trucks will be stuck with them. The changeover to alternative fuels is a slow process, fraught with false starts and misleading signals. But in the end, it will be well worth it to reduce our dependence on imported oil and achieve some kind of energy independence. Car buyers have very short memories and an inability to look very far into the future. Remember, it’s always a passing parade. Consequently, their reaction has been only short-term. But once people buy those trucks, they’re stuck with them for the next 5 to 10 years. If the price of gas goes up again, they may live to regret it.

Abbott and Costello, war, sectarianism and Middle Eastern oil — a trifecta

Abbott & CostelloI bet only those on Medicare, like me, remember the old Abbott and Costello joke, “Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third”… or something like that.

The dialogue was funny at the time. But the joke, in some respects, tracks the current, very serious situation in the Middle East: Who’s on first, a very militant Sunni group called ISIS; What’s on second, well maybe Iraq (if it can get its act together, which is increasingly unlikely); and, I Don’t Know exactly who’s on third, maybe the Peshmerga from among the Kurdish Regional State in Iraq and, perhaps soon, a surprise addition from the Kurdish PKK military group living among Kurds in Turkey. Who are the umpires? Perhaps Israel. Maybe OPEC. How about the world’s respected ethicists — if they can ever agree.

Isn’t this fun? Let’s try it again, for there are several possible lineups. Let’s try this one: Who’s on first, how about the Assad-related Shiites in Syria. What’s on second, the new caliphate in Iraq and Syria. I Don’t Know exactly who’s on third, maybe, but unlikely, in light of its numerous conflicting interests (e.g., NATO, Islam, etc.), Turkey. Who’s the hapless lonely umpire or umpires at home plate? Perhaps, the U.N. — the so-called moderate rebels. Perhaps the USA, England or France, or perhaps all three. After all, each Western country has had, at best, a difficult, morally ambiguous historical record in the area, and faces a tough, complex future. Justice and fairness have not always guided their respective objectives and actions. If you believe they have, step up to the plate and you can buy the Brooklyn Bridge for a dollar.

It’s a crazy baseball game! I know the Israelis are in the stands but they have found it tough to get emotional. In their view, at least, both of the team’s captains are Iranian. Since it’s not in the official lineup, the game has little meaning to the Israelis.

We are not sure that all the batters, base runners and umpires are on the same team or in the same game. At times, some players appear to run right and some left. Some run into each other. Others don’t run at all. Most appear to be playing by Middle Eastern norms, which mean they frequently change uniforms, roles, rules and alliances. The umpires seem to be confused and frustrated. They may be ready soon to go for a higher legal or spiritual reviewer but they cannot agree on which one (e.g., the International Court of Justice, God or his or her surrogate).

I yearn for the simplicity of just a year or two ago — before ISIS. Many of our leaders and media types referred to America’s role then in terms of seeking stability in the Middle East. Some even suggested, often knowing better, that it was based on a commitment to establishing western-style democracy. Very few played Don Quixote, or even a good forensic economist searching for the truth. U.S. and Western involvement in the Middle East for a long time has been, to a large degree, premised on dependency on oil. As dependency on oil imports was recently reduced significantly to about 30-35 percent of total oil use because of tight oil development, increased fuel standards, and a slow growth economy, the U.S. has agreed to defend our allies’ right to unfettered international oil transportation from wellhead to refinery.

Democracy and oil proved to be an uneasy mix. Secular animosity and intense internal as well as external competition for oil revenue and market share seemed much more difficult than the naive assertion made after 9/11 that the Iraq citizenry would welcome U.S. military with cheering crowds — shades of WWII after U.S. troupes retook Paris. If only it could have been!

What has occurred in the past year or so has once again shifted the game players, the rules and roles (the ecology of Middle Eastern games). The rise of ISIS and its quick absorption of land in both Syria and Iraq combined with its brutality toward the vanquished in captured territories as well as detained westerners has shifted U.S. and its new coalition’s (e.g., England, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, Kurds, etc.) attention away from getting rid of Assad to stopping establishment of the caliphate. No longer is democracy a major goal. How could it be with such tested democratic states as Saudi Arabia and Qatar front and center? I shouldn’t be cynical…or should I? Now the focus is on stability — translated: salvage what can salvaged from what is left of Iraq and assumedly prevention of what appears to be an increasing sectarianism from disintegrating into wars fought over God and Mammon or maybe my God and your Mammon or vice versa. The new coalition led by the U.S., apart from the British and French includes:

  • Implicitly, Iran, despite Iran’s enmity and its support of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
  • Syria, despite its vicious regime, a regime that has killed or terrorized large sectors of its population, far more than ISIS has to date and probably will far into the future.
  • Qatar, whose chameleon foreign policy reminds one constantly of Ronald Reagan’s quote about the Russians, “Trust but verify.”
  • Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-dominated kingdom, that, until the Arab Spring, seemed reasonably secure in its religious, non-democratically based, very conservative legal framework, as well as a caste and class system based on discrimination and corruption.
  • Iraq, a country that, despite U.S. support, is a nation in name only. It is divided by sectarianism into at least three potential would-be nations — each one dominated by dominant religious and ethnic groups. Its central government is unable or unwilling to secure consensus as to governance and military approaches. Its army, despite years of U.S.-supported training and U.S.-supplied weaponry has been, up to now, no match for ISIS. Its sectarian-controlled militias are not committed to consensus building and may end up as a threat to further nation building.

The new coalition has shaken up the Middle East and suggests the old adage that, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Endorsement of the present nation states in the Middle East, as well as opposition to territorial aggrandizement and religious extremism, provides the rationale for U.S. and Western involvement in the current war.

But, irrespective of the coalition’s normative marching orders about stopping extremism and a big land grasp, I suspect that oil or trafficking in oil remains a key factor, indirectly or directly, in back-room decisions to push back ISIS boundaries. Let’s see: the Saudis must soon consider increasing the price of a barrel of oil if it is to avoid the need to cut back on services to its citizens and risk tension. It also must soon consider an increase in oil prices if it is to sustain its defense budget in terms of the present conflict with ISIS. While the U.S. has surpassed the Saudis in oil production, Saudi oil is needed by the West and Asia to avoid significant future price rises premised on future growth. As a result, the U.S. will remain a protector of oil transit. Apart from fearing the collapse of Iraq for political, economic and moral reasons, the U.S. is still committed to safeguarding Iraq’s oil and the oil from one of its regions, the Kurdish Regional Government, for its allies and also for the revenue needed by both. Qatar is a conundrum. Today, it’s a western ally against ISIS; yesterday, reports indicated it supported militants in the Gaza. Which twin has the Tony? Where will it be tomorrow? Finally, remember ISIS needs oil for revenues to function as a government.

If only! If only we could find home-grown, market-acceptable substitutes for oil and its derivative gasoline that would relieve any hint or suspicion that oil or gasoline would be even an indirect consideration in a U.S. or Western nation decisions to go to war. We are not there yet, in terms of the majority of the vehicle owners. But we are getting close with alcohol-based fuels, biofuels, and hydrogen and electric cars.

coin flip

Are Americans risk-averse?

The name of the game is “the St. Petersburg Paradox,” and it proved that people are risk-averse, even when they have nothing to lose and a chance to win big from playing a game. It has become a well-established principle in economics and helps explain why people are so reluctant to switch to alternative fuels, even when they stand to gain from the exchange.

The architect of this theory is Daniel Bernoulli, the 18th century Swiss mathematician who is also responsible for Bernoulli’s law, which states that pressure becomes less intense as a fluid travels over one side of a surface at greater speed. It is the basis of airplane flight.

Bernoulli lived in St. Petersburg for a period and became involved in the gambling scene, which was very intense. Like any good mathematician, however, he became more interested in why people bet, rather than the outcome of the game.

He became particularly intrigued by something called the “St. Petersburg Game.” The rules were fairly simple: It involved the simple flip of a coin. If the coin came up tails, the player would receive a dollar (ruble). If the coin came up tails a second time, the player would receive $2, third time $4 and double for each round thereafter. In other words, as long as the coin kept coming up heads, you kept winning. Theoretically, a player could make $500 and on up. The question is, how much would you pay to play this game?

Bernoulli found that even though the average payout was $2, players were very reluctant to buy into the game for more than $2. Their thinking was very short-term and logical. The possibility of a huge payout was of little appeal to them. They were risk-averse.

From this observation, Bernoulli deduced another principle he called the “marginal utility of wealth.” Bernoulli differentiated between “wealth” and “utility.” The utility curve, he said, was concave, and people tended to put more value on the money they lost rather than what they gained. Therefore, they were much less inclined toward risk. Even the possibility of a large payout in an uncertain future is not enough to entice them into the game for a higher price.

What does this have to do with alternative fuels and alternative vehicles? Well, the early adopters are taking big risks. They risk that the new technology may not work out, and they will be stuck with a white elephant. They risk that the fuel savings may not be as great as they are led to believe. The risk that the price of fuels may change drastically – such as the current free fall in oil prices – and any advantage they might have had with the alternative fuel may quickly evaporate. The natural gas tank on a utility truck costs about $5,000, on top of the cost of the normal gas tank. Anyone who as one installed is taking a big risk. Is it worth the extra investment?

The concave marginal utility curve also explains why wealthier people are more inclined to try the alternative vehicles than the average person. They have more room to experiment and are less concerned about losses. Tesla has been deliberately targeting the $75,000 and up market. The first Tesla driven in the United States was bought by Leonardo DiCaprio. Elon Musk is taking a tremendous risk himself by trying to manufacture a $45,000 Tesla that will appeal to a much larger audience.

But risk aversion for the average person is very hard to overcome. Look at another version of the St. Petersburg game: You are allowed to buy into a game where you flip a coin for money. If you win that one flip, you will be awarded $1,000 each year for the rest of your life. Alternately, you may flip the coin every year for $1,000 for that year. Which would you choose?

Experience proves overwhelming that the majority of people prefer to flip every year rather than stake it all on one flip. This proves that people are not risk-takers but would rather have incremental increases rather than an all-or-nothing opportunity. People do not expect extraordinary events to occur to them, but base their decisions on the more normal rate of chance.

Peter Drucker said that in order to replace an existing technology you had to have something that is 10 times as good as what you are trying to do. There are so many impediments – inertia, trying to get known, trying to overcome people’s aversion to risk –that it’s a very difficult task.

That’s why many believe that we need the intervention of the states and the federal government to prime the pump for alternative fuels and vehicles. There are just very few people willing to take the risk. California’s program to put 15,000 cars on the road running on methanol in the 1990s was a good example. Should it be duplicated? There is no downside to running on ethanol or methanol, and there are probably some environmental advantages, as well as money to be saved. But the societal benefits – energy independence and freedom from imported oil – are spread out, while the risks remain on one person – the individual who buys the vehicle.

Individuals are risk-averse – there’s no getting around it. It may take some initiative from the government to mitigate those risks and spread them out over a wider range of people. That way they become more tolerable.

corn-tank

EPA delays decision on whether to reduce ethanol in gas

The federal government’s new threshold for the amount of ethanol blended into America’s gasoline supply was already 10 months overdue. So officials have gone ahead and delayed the decision further, into 2015.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday that it would defer an announcement on the renewable fuel standard (RFS), which stipulates that ethanol should make up 10 percent of gasoline.

(The Des Moines Register has some of the day’s best reporting on this issue. Agriculture.com also has a good explanation of the granular details.)

The standard, first established under a 2005 law, calls for the amount of renewable fuels in gasoline to progressively increase each year. But the law was written at a time when demand for gasoline was expected to keep going up. Slackened demand around the world, combined with stepped-up U.S. production, has dropped domestic prices below $3 a gallon.

Based on that reality, the EPA recommended, in November 2013, that the amount of corn ethanol in the should be reduced, from 14.4 billion gallons a year to 13.01 billion gallons.

This upset the corn growers and ethanol producers, most of them clustered in the Midwest and Great Plains. They said the delays deterred investment in biofuels, and even the oil companies complained that the regulatory vacuum created too much uncertainty in the fuels market.

The EPA’s recommendations had not been finalized. They had been sent to the White House Office of Budget and Management for review, but that office “ran out the 90-day clock to review the agency’s proposed standards, which for the first time signaled a retreat by the EPA on the percentage of biofuels that must be blended,” The Hill reported.

Since the EPA was already so late in setting the 2014 guidelines, the agency “intends to get back on track next year, though details on how it would do that weren’t available Friday,” The Wall Street Journal wrote. The EPA statement said: “Looking forward, one of EPA’s objectives is to get back on the annual statutory timeline by addressing 2014, 2015, and 2016 standards in the next calendar year.”

The reaction among the affected parties was mixed Friday. The WSJ tries to untangle the various interests:

The debate over the biofuels mandate triggers strange bedfellows, with trade groups representing the oil and refining companies, car manufacturers, livestock and even some environmental interests all opposed to the policy for different reasons. Proponents of the standard include the corn industry, which is the most common way ethanol is produced, and producers of ethanol.

The EPA’s announcement gave cautious hope to ethanol-industry leaders that the agency will fundamentally rethink how it proposes the annual biofuels levels. The draft 2014 biofuels levels, which the agency proposed almost a year ago, were much lower than the ethanol industry lobbied for.

“I am truly pleased that they’re pulling away from a rule that was so bad,” said Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, a trade group representing biofuels companies. “But I recognize as well we have to work with the agency to try to figure out a path forward that everybody can live with.”

Executives in the oil-refining industry criticized the delay, and said it was evidence the renewable-fuel standard was itself inherently flawed and should be repealed.

“Each year is dependent upon the previous year, and to some extent dependent upon the following year,” said Charlie Drevna, president of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, a trade association representing the nation’s refining industry. “The problem is, every year EPA is late in getting this out, it exacerbates it. They’re never going to be able to catch up.”