USA, USA, USA…The search for competitive fuel choices

“USA, USA, USA, USA.” No, I didn’t just come from watching the U.S. playing in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. But after reading the glowing, cheerleading, overly enthusiastic, often-nationalistic media accounts of the U.S. overtaking the Saudis in oil production, the win-lose aspects of the soccer chant somehow became embedded in my persona (like counting sheep or gas pumps at night when I can’t sleep). We beat the Saudis at their own game — oil. We’re number one…wow! Next, will we emulate the Saudis and place onerous and discriminatory restrictions on women drivers and, unlike the Saudis, argue that it’s a conservation measure? Of course not! We don’t have to be number one in everything. But oil does make strange bedfellows, and equally strange behavior, as well as policies.

Unfortunately, most of the media stories avoid analysis of what the new oil prominence of the U.S. means to the nation and world. Yes, increased production likely means less dependence on the Middle East, particularly Saudi oil. Indeed, we now import about 33% of oil needs, the lowest percentage in years.

But oil independence remains a myth. Oil interests are pushing for a reduction of regulations concerning exports of U.S. crude oil and have always exported considerable refined oil products allowed by the law. Their motives, despite frequent public comments to the contrary, are generally to sell to the price, which means to the buyer who offers the most return. He, she or it frequently is a global purchaser. Independence is a slogan that often blurs motive and reflects good politics but bad substance and contrary to reality.

The U.S., as the most powerful western nation, irrespective of any mathematical domestic surplus, will continue to extend its role as defender of the global supply chain from the Middle East or elsewhere. While we may be less dependent on foreign oil, U.S. leaders have, in the past, and likely will in the future, use a combination of diplomacy and military threats and action to defend and sustain the flow of foreign oil to allies or assumed allies. In this context, the role we play in the world extends our dependency. Unfortunately, wars will be fought and U.S. soldiers will die because of this felt dependency.

Most of the “USA, USA, USA” chants in the media coverage of our new oil prowess, implicitly neglects the difficult juxtaposition between increased oil production and supplies and higher gas prices. Less dependence hasn’t brought the reduction, or even stabilization, of gas prices promised by the oil industry. Gasoline in California is now generally well over $4 a gallon for regular, and averages over $3.60 a gallon across the nation. Why? We have a surplus, don’t we? Oil companies want to export more, and it appears that they will be able to do just that, soon. As Dr. Pangloss asked in “Candide,” is this the “best of all possible worlds” (let me add, for the U.S.)?

Clearly, the cost of oil at the pump is not strongly linked (at the present time) to the amount of U.S. oil that shows up on EIA calculations and projections. Both price and supply are going up simultaneously. Yes, there is uncertainty, given events in the Middle East and yes, uneven growth around the world has increased demand in some areas and suppressed it in others. The link between high prices and the Middle East is difficult to measure precisely. Consumer costs per gallon are likely affected more by investors, as well as speculation on Wall Street, than the actual numbers concerning increased production of U.S. oil.

So, apart from prayer and penitence, what can we do to get a better deal for consumers, and to prevent gasoline from becoming a negative factor concerning U.S. GDP growth and the environment? How can we help assure that being number one means robust economic growth, more income in the wallets of Americans (particularly low-income Americans), increased security and fewer dirty emissions?

These are not easy questions, and they do not lend themselves to simple ideological responses. Clearly, as renewable fuels and vehicles that meet the incomes and desires of most Americans become available, both will play a vital role in America’s future. But reliance on coal-fired utilities for power in some areas of the nation, battery costs, mileage limitations from single battery charges, and lack of infrastructure impede their ability to have a significant positive impact at the present. The market for renewable fuels and vehicles is relatively small and will remain so until technological advances catch up with potential demand.

Where is the Greek philosopher Diogenes when we need him? We have a path in front of us that would buy time toward a better American future, one that could offer competition to gasoline — competition that would be good for the economy, the consumer and the environment. Increased availability of replacement fuels, particularly natural gas-based ethanol, combined with large-scale conversion of older cars to flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) and increased production of new FFVs by Detroit, would give gasoline a run for the money, if gas-only stations become fuel stations and provide consumers with a choice. According to the Renewable Fuels Association, less than one percent of all gas stations in the U.S. that are branded by the big oil companies offer E15 or E85.

I remain an optimist that more freedom will reign soon at the pump. The noted people’s philosopher, Charles M. Schulz, creator of “Peanuts” comic strips, lessened my fears about the future when he said, “Stop worrying about the world ending today. It’s already tomorrow in Australia.” USA, USA, USA. Fuel choice, fuel choice, fuel choice!

Of myths, oil companies and a competitive fuel market

I do not wish to join the intense dialogue concerning whether or not the government should allow exports of crude oil. Others are already doing a good job of confusing and obscuring the pros and cons of selling increased amounts of America’s growing oil resources overseas.

What I do want to do is just focus on the logic of one of the oil industry’s major arguments for extending the permitting of exports — again, not on the wisdom of exporting policy. Permit me to do so in the context of the industry’s long-standing argument concerning the pricing of gasoline to U.S. consumers. The argument is that more oil drilling in the U.S. will lower the price of gas and put America on the path to oil “independence.”

In somewhat of circuitous manner, oil companies are using the opposite of their domestic advocacy for “drill, baby, drill” policy as a way to keep prices lower at the pump. Their yin is that producing more oil in the U.S. and sending significant amounts overseas, combined with declining vehicular fuel demand, will lower gas prices. Economist Adam Smith would applaud the simplicity if he were alive and well. Their yang presents a bit more complicated set of “ifs.” That is, the industry presumes that fulfillment of the yen (excuse another pun) to export will result in more U.S. oil being drilled because of increased world demand generated by the assumed ability of the U.S. to produce oil at less costs than the world price for oil. It will also help foster infrastructure development in the U.S. to break up current log jams concerning oil transportation. Finally, it will facilitate more efficient refineries, allowing them to specialize in different types of oil. The yin and yang will result in (marginally) lower prices of gasoline — so goes the rhetoric and oil-industry-paid-for studies.

Paraphrasing Dr. Pangloss in “Candide,” the oil companies hope for the “best of all possible worlds.” But, before Americans run out and buy stock, note the price of gasoline does not directly reflect oil production volume. Indeed, gas prices, despite increased supplies, have gyrated significantly and now hover nationally over $4 a gallon. Generally, oil and gas prices relate to international prices, tension in the Middle East and investor and banker speculation — not always or directly domestic costs. Stockholders and executives of oil companies function not on patriotism but on profit and to the extent that the law permits, they will sell overseas to get the best price — in effect, the best dollar over payment for a barrel of oil. Consumers, I suspect, are rarely a significant part of their opportunity costing.

Unfortunately, lack of strong empirical evidence tempers the company’s argument that increased world demand will stimulate good things like refinery efficiency and log-jam-ending infrastructure. Maybe if the price per barrel is right (clearly, higher than it is now) and seems predictable for more than a small period of time, refinery and infrastructure developments will be positive. But, the costs to the consumer, in this context, will be higher. It will also be higher because shale oil is tight oil and more risky and costly to drill.

Oil independence is a myth suggested by oil industry and a non-analytical media. Certainly, the oil boom and less vehicular demand have generated less imports and less dependency. But we still buy nearly 300 billion dollars’ worth of oil every year to respond to need and we still produce far less than demand.

Somewhere in the dark labyrinth of each major oil company is a pumped-up (another pun), never-used, secret justification for franchise agreements impeding the sale of alternative fuels in their retail outlets. To alleviate guilt, it may go something like this: “Monopolies at the pump will allow us to make larger profits. You know we will someday soon want to give back some of the profits to consumers by lowering the price of gasoline.” If you believe this still-secret beneficence, let me sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.

There is another way to steady the gasoline market and lower consumer costs. Inexpensive conversions to allow older vehicles to use safe, cheaper and environmentally better alternative fuels (as opposed to gasoline), combined with expanded use by flex-fuel owners of alternative fuels, would add competition to the fuel market and likely reduce prices for consumers. Natural-gas-based ethanol is on the horizon and methanol, once the EPA approves, will follow, hopefully shortly thereafter. Electric cars, once costs are lower and distance on single charges is higher, will be a welcome addition to the competitive mix.