The Saudis and oil prices — the diminishing value of conspiracy theories

saudi_1880139cEveryone likes hidden conspiracies, either fact or fiction. Covert conspiracies are the stuff of great and not-so-great novels. Whether true or false, when believed, they often cause tectonic policy shifts, wars, terrorism and ugly behavior by groups and individuals. They are part of being human and sometimes reflect the inhumanity of men and women toward their fellow human beings.

I have been following the recent media attention on conspiracies concerning oil, gasoline and Saudi Arabia. They are all over the place. If foolish consistency is the “hobgoblin of little minds” (Ralph Waldo Emerson), then the reporters and editorial writers are supportive stringers for inconsistency. Let me briefly summarize the thoughts and counter thoughts of some of the reported conspiracy theorists and practitioners:

  1. The Saudis are refusing to limit production and raise the price of oil because they want to severely weaken the economy of Iran. The tension between the two nations has increased and, to some extent, is now being framed both by real politics (concerning who’s going to carry the big stick in the region) and by sectarianism. Iran’s oil remains under sanction and the Saudis hope (and may even be working with Israel, at least in a back-office way) to keep it that way.
  2. No, you’re wrong. The Saudis are now after market penetration and are lowering the price of oil to impede U.S. development and production of oil from shale. Right now, they are not worrying so much about oil from Iran-given sanctions…but they probably will, if there is a nuclear deal between the West and Iran.
  3. You both are nuts. The Saudis and the U.S. government are working together to blunt Russian oil sales and its economy. The U.S. and Saudis can withstand low oil prices, but the Russians are, and will be, significantly hurt economically. If it hurts Iran so much, the better! But the Cold War is back and the reset is a failure.
  4. Everyone is missing the boat. The Saudis don’t really control prices or production to the extent that they did in the past. Neither does OPEC. Don’t look for conspiracies, except perhaps within the Kingdom itself. The most powerful members of the Saudi royal family understand that if they limit production to raise prices per barrel, it probably wouldn’t work in a major way. The U.S. has become a behemoth concerning oil from shale. If a nuclear deal goes through, Iran will have sanctions lessoned or removed relatively soon. Should the Russian and West reach some sort of cold peace in Ukraine, Russia will become a player again. When you add Canada, Iraq, Libya and the Gulf States to the mix, lower global demand, and increase the value of the dollar, you get an uncertain oil future. The Saudis, led by their new king, are buying time and casing out their oil future.

To me, the Saudi decisions and the subsequent OPEC decisions were muddled through. Yet, they appear reasonably rational. Saudi leaders feared rising prices and less oil production. Their opportunity costing, likely, went something like this: “If we raise prices, and reduce production, we will lose global market share and maybe, in the current market, even dollar or riyal value. Our production costs are relatively low, compared to shale development in the U.S. While costs may go higher in the future, particularly once drilling on flat desert land becomes more difficult in light of geology, we can make a profit at the present time, even at $30-40 a barrel. Conversely, we believe that for the time being, U.S. shale developers cannot make a profit going below $40-50. Maybe we are wrong, but if we are, our cost/profit equation is not wrong by much. By doing what we are doing, we will undercut American production. Sure, other exporting countries, including our allies in the Gulf will be hurt temporarily, but, in the long run, they and we will be better off. Further, restricting production and assumedly securing higher prices is not a compelling approach. It could cause political and social tension in the country. We rely on oil sales, cash flow and profit as well as reserves to, in effect, buy at least short-term civic peace from our citizens. Oil revenue helps support social services and basic infrastructure. We’ve got to keep it coming.”

The Kingdom understands that it can no longer control prices through production — influence, yes, but, with the rise of U.S. oil development, it cannot control production. Conspiracy theories or assumed practices don’t add much to the analysis of Saudi behavior concerning their cherished oil resources. Like a steamy novel, they fill our reading time, and sometimes lead to a rise in personal adrenaline. Often, at different moments, they define the bad guys vs. the good guys, or Taylor Swift vs. Madonna.

No single nation will probably have the power once held by OPEC and the Saudis. While human and institutional frailties and desires for wealth and power suggest there always will be conspiratorial practices aimed at influencing international prices of oil and international power relationships, their relevance and impact will diminish significantly. Their net effect will become apparent, mostly with respect to regional and local environments, like Yemen and ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Recently, I asked a Special Forces officer, “Why is the U.S. fighting in Iraq?” I expected him to recite the speeches of politicians — you know, the ones about democracy, freedom and a better life for the citizens of Iraq. But he articulated none of these. He said one word, “Oil”! All the rest is B.S. I think he was and remains mostly right. His answer might help us understand part of the reason for the strange alliance between the Saudis and U.S. military efforts in or near Yemen at the present time. Beyond religious hatred and regional power struggles, it might also help us comprehend at least part of the reasons for Iran’s support of the U.S.-led war against ISIS — a war that also involves other “democratic” friends of the U.S. such as the Saudis and the Gulf States.

The alliances involve bitter enemies. On the surface, they seem somewhat mystifying. Sure, complex sectarian and power issues are involved, and the enemies of my enemies can sometimes become, in these two cases, less than transparent friends. But you know, these two conflicts — Yemen and ISIS — I believe, also reflect the combatant’s interest in oil and keeping oil-shipping routes open.

President Obama has argued that we should use alternative energy sources to fuel America’s economy and he has stated that we need to wean the U.S. off of oil and gasoline. Doing both, if successful, would be good for the environment, and limit the need to send our military to protect oil lifelines. Similarly, opening up U.S. fuel markets to alternative fuels and competition would mute the U.S. military intervention gene, while curing us, to a large degree, of mistakenly granting conspiracy advocates much respectability. Oh, I forgot to indicate that the oil companies continue their secret meetings. Their agenda is to frustrate the evolution of open fuel markets and consumer choices concerning fuel at the pump. Back to the conspiracy drawing boards! Nothing is what it seems, is it?

 

Photo credit: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/finance/

PUMP on campus: Houston, Humboldt, UCI host screenings

PUMP could have taken Friday off, or ditched class early and headed straight for the beer garden. But there’s still work to do.

The documentary is heading to campus for a pair of Friday-night screenings: at the University of Houston and at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. On Monday the film will be shown at UC Irvine.

PUMP actually was released in theaters last fall, to great reviews and audience response, but it’s getting a second wind: On Friday it hits the big screen at Kingsway Movies in Toronto. And of course, there’s Netflix and DVD if you want to watch PUMP in the privacy of your home with the beverage of your choice (Check out Marc Rauch’s recipe for an America Libre made with corn whiskey).

Here are the details on the upcoming university screenings. And yes, this will be on the final:

Humboldt: 5 p.m. PDT Friday, Downstairs at the Campus Center for Appropriate Technology, 1 Harpst St., Arcata. Host: PowerSave and CCAT.

U. of Houston: 5:30 p.m. CDT Friday, Cemo Hall Auditorium, 4800 Calhoun Rd. Host: Energy Department. Q&A with Fuel Freedom board advisor and former Shell Oil president John Hofmeister afterward.

UCI: 6 p.m. PDT Monday, Steinhaus Hall, Room 134. Host: Climatepedia.

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Wolves shot from choppers shows oil harm beyond pollution

The expansion of oil-sands mines and drilling pads has brought the caribou pictured on Canada’s 25-cent coin to the brink of extinction in Alberta and British Columbia. To arrest the population decline, the two provinces are intensifying a hunt of the caribou’s main predator, the gray wolf. Conservation groups accuse the provinces of making wolves into scapegoats for man-made damage to caribou habitats.

Car buyers go shopping for better mileage

With the price of oil down from about $115 to $63 since last June, the impression has been created that the auto world is once again in the hands of the oil industry, and that the gasoline engine is here to stay.

But this week at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Conference, there was the distinct impression that alternatives to the gasoline engine are moving up so fast that within another five years we may see big changes. Bloomberg Business wrote that the result is “Future transport is likely to look a lot different than what the major oil companies are fueling now. Instead of biofuels such as ethanol and green diesel making the internal-combustion engine fit into a world with greenhouse gas limits, wholesale new solutions are coming fast.”

“Where we are is in an age of plenty,” Michael Liebreich, BNEF’s founder, told Bloomberg. “We have cheap oil, cheap gas, cheap renewables. You do have an abundance of supply in a way you haven’t had for decades. We also are in an age of competition.”

The biggest piece of news is that gasoline consumption has leveled off over the last decade and now is lower than it was in 2006. This is a remarkable development that no one knows quite how to explain. Part of it may be the lingering recession. Fleet mileage improvement has definitely made a difference, improving from 24.5 in 2001 to 31.6 today, a dramatic surge of 29 percent in 13 years. The Age of the Hummer is over, and people are being more selective in shopping for better mileage, even as the vehicles improve.

But Bloomberg Energy sees alternatively fueled vehicles also making headway in a way that is just becoming visible. Electric car sales have quintupled over the last four years, although they did start at a very low base. But battery prices are coming down as rapidly as solar-panel prices, which means that they soon will be in a range where the average American can afford them. Tesla’s 2017 debut of the Model 3, priced in the $35,000 range, is going to be a real turning point, if everything goes right.

Also coming along rapidly is the hydrogen car, which the Japanese auto industry has chosen as its alternative to gasoline. Toyota and Honda are just beginning to market their models in Japan, and BNEF anticipates there will be 4,200 on the road in Japan by 2018. But California is another big potential market, and sales are scheduled to begin there sometime late this year. The California Legislature has responded by expanding the Hydrogen Highway initiated by former government Arnold Schwarzenegger, making it easier for drivers to refuel.

Of course, all these predictions are taking place on a world scale, and there the progress may be even more rapid than in the United States. One thing Tesla discovered in its relatively abortive attempt to crack the Chinese market is that China already has a thriving electric-car industry. The cars, moreover, are not scaled-down versions of powerful sports cars but slow-moving vehicles that have been designed from the ground up.

In an article in Forbes last week, Jack Perkowski outlined what he called “China’s other electric vehicle industry:”

While the global automotive giants struggle to find a winning formula for electric vehicles, approximately 100 manufacturers in China have already identified a large potential market undiscovered by the traditional players. The common problems faced by EV automakers — high cost, driving range, and the availability of charging stations — are not issues for these manufacturers because their target customers are satisfied with low-speed and limited range EVs, as long as they provide affordable transportation. In 2014, 400,000 so-called ‘low-speed’ EVs were sold in China, compared to only 84,000 conventional all electric and hybrid electric vehicles.

To get a glimpse of the size of China’s potential market, consider this: China is already the world’s largest vehicle market, accounting for 25 percent of all vehicles manufactured globally. Yet there is only 1 vehicle per 10 people in China, whereas in the United States there are 8 for every 10 – more than one vehicle for every person of driving age. China also has another huge market for other electric vehicles. It has sold 90 million motorcycles and 120 million electric bicycles.

Estimates are that China now has a million such low-speed EVs on the road now and might reach 3 million by 2020. These cars can do about 48 miles per hour and are used for short runs around town in smaller cities, so range is not a problem. They are doing wonders for air pollution. Manufacture only began in 2006, and already some provincial governments are starting to write requirements that they be preferred to the older gasoline types.
Surprisingly, the only government entity that has been slow to embrace the low-speed EVs is the national government in Beijing. The Central Government has not counted these EVs is their official automotive statistics and is only now starting to write regulations on how crash-worthy they must be and on what roads they will be allowed to travel.

Perkowski concludes: “Low-speed EVs may not fit the stereotype of today’s modern passenger car, but in China, where incomes remain low for a large part of the country’s population, affordability often trumps those values held dear in more developed countries.”

Could China’s low-speed EVs find a market in the United States? It’s certainly possible. In any case, the anti-gasoline revolution may be coming in ways we did not anticipate.