And that’s the way it is or isn’t — stable oil and gas markets

“And that’s the way it is” was used by my favorite news anchor, Walter Cronkite, to sign off on his highly respected network news show. And that’s the way the content he generally delivered generally was — clear, factual, helpful. I have tried to apply Cronkitism to today’s media analyses and commentary on oil production and oil prices. The new assumed “way it is” regrettably sometimes seems like the way the journalist or his boss — whether print, TV or cable — wants it to be or hopes it will be. Frequently, partial sets of facts are marshaled to ostensibly determine clear cause and effect relationships but end up confusing issues and generating questions as to the author or speakers mastery of content and conclusions.

What’s a Cronkitist to do? I often look to The New York Times for the wisdom grail. Generally, it works. But, I must confess that a recent piece in the Times by outstanding journalist, Clifford Kraus, titled “Is Stability the New Normal?” Oct. 9 bothered me. I found its thesis that a new stability has arrived with respect to oil prices and by implication gas prices at the pump a bit too simple.

The author indicates that “predictions about oil and gas prices are precarious when there are so many political and security hazards. But it is likely that the world has already entered a period of relatively predictable crude prices…there are reasons to believe the inevitable tensions in oil-producing countries will be manageable over at least the next few years, because the world now has sturdier shock absorbers than at any time over at least the past decade.”

What are these absorbers? First, more oil production in the U.S., Canada, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, to balance the loss of exports from countries like Iran, Libya and, I assume, Venezuela and possibly Nigeria. Second, the continued spread of oil shale development throughout the world, including many non-Middle East or OPEC countries. Third, increased auto efficiency, conservation and lower demand for gas in the U.S. Finally, near the end of the article and not really seemingly central to the author’s stability argument natural gas becomes in part a hypothetical “if.” He notes that American demand for gasoline could drop below a half a billion barrels a day from already below peak consumption, if natural cheap gas replaces more oil as a transportation fuel. (At least he mentioned natural gas as a transportation fuel. Most media reports fail to tie natural gas to transportation) break open the champagne! Nirvana is near! Michael Lynch, a senior official at Strategic Energy & Economic Research Inc., is quoted in the article, saying, “Stable oil prices could reduce future inflation rates and particularly curb transportation costs, helping to steady prices of food and construction materials that travel long distances…Lower inflation can also help reduce interest rates. By reducing uncertainty, investor and consumer confidence should both be increased, boosting higher spending and investment and thus economic growth.”

In the words of Oscar Hammerstein II, I want to be a cockeyed optimist…but something tells me to be at least a bit wary of a too-good-to-be-true scenario, one premised on a historically new relatively high price of oil per barrel (bbl.), just under $100 (the price is now about $105) and gas prices likely only modestly lower than they are now (the U.S. average is close to $3.50 a gallon)

So why be wary and worry?

1. The Times accepts the rapid significant growth in oil shale development and production too easily. Maybe they are right! Perhaps the oil shale train has left the station. But the growth of environmental opposition, particularly opposition to fracking, will likely slow it down until regulations perceived as reasonable by the industry and environmentalists are put in the books. Further, the often very early large expectations with respect to new pools of oil in places like the Monterey Shale, featured in media releases, have not panned out after later sophisticated analyses. Finally, the price of hard to get at oil may come in so high as to limit producer enthusiasm for new drilling.

2. The Times correctly suggests that the relationship between oil prices and gasoline costs may be less than thought conventionally. Lower oil costs in the U.S. do not necessarily trigger lower gasoline costs, and higher gasoline costs are not necessarily the result of higher oil costs per barrel

The Times credits the recent visible break in the relationship primarily to an abundance of oil linked to oil shale production in the U.S. and in many other countries and to falling demand for oil throughout the world, including China, to the lack of economic growth and higher efficiency of vehicles.

It’s more complicated. For example, price setting is affected in a major way by speculation in the financial community, and by oil producers and refiners who govern production and distribution availability. Respected analysts and political leaders suggest that companies base their decisions concerning price at least in part on market and profit assumptions. Fair. But, oil’s major derivative gasoline does not function in a free market, rather, it is a market controlled by oil companies. There is little competition from alternative fuels. Unfair and inefficient.

3. The quest for oil independence and the related justification for drilling lead the media to suggest and the public to believe that there is an equivalency between increased production of oil and closing the gap between what we consume and produce as a nation. Yes, we have reduced the gap — both demands have fallen and production has increased. But it is still around 6.0 to 6.5 million barrels per day. Yet, we continue to export nearly half of what we produce every day or nearly 4 million barrels. Our good friends, China and Venezuela, get 4% and 3% respectively. Companies may sing “God Bless America” while extracting, refining, exporting and importing oil, but theologically based patriotism doesn’t govern the oil market. Sorry, but global prices and profits have precedence. Remember the adage — “the business of business is business.”

4. A recently released Fuel Freedom Foundation paper suggests that energy independence is a misnomer. Based on its review of EIA data and projections through 2035, negative energy balances exist that never drop below a $300 billion deficit. If EIA data is to be believed, energy independence, Saudi America and control of our energy future are developments that will not occur anytime soon.

I am disappointed that natural gas as an alternative fuel seems more like an afterthought coming at the end of Kraus’s long piece. I am glad the author mentioned it but it seems at least a bit forced. The commentary was limited to natural gas and not its derivatives, ethanol and methanol, or, for that matter, other alternative fuels. Put another way, it seemed to assume a still very restricted fuel market. Opening up consumer choices at the pump is a key factor in stabilizing oil and gas markets. It also is a key factor achieving reduced prices at the pump for low and moderate income families; the former spending from 14-17% of their limited income on gasoline.

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