An oil-drilling sing along, to the tune of “Politics and Polka”

Correlation or causation, correlation or causation
Misleading numbers, mistaken assumptions. Who will be the joker?

Okay, I am neither poet nor composer. I can’t even sing. But Fiorello Laguardia was an early hero from the time I met him in my sixth grade history books, and the musical Fiorello! was good fun.

Mayor Laguardia would be amused and bemused by recent articles suggesting that the Monterey Shale isn’t what it was cracked up to be a year or two ago. The story lends itself to his famous encounters with comic books. Despite earlier media hype, its development will not lead to economic nirvana for California and could well lead to real environmental problems.

Why were the numbers that were put out by the oil industry just a couple of years ago wrong? Maybe because of a bit of politics and polka! The articulated slogan concerning oil independence from foreign countries mesmerized many who should have known better.

Similarly, why, while once accepted by relevant federal agencies, have the production numbers concerning the Monterey Shale been recently discounted by the same agencies (EIA) and independent non-partisan analysts? Quite simply, they now know more. Succinctly, it’s too expensive to get the oil out and the oil wells, once completed, will have a comparatively short production life.

Drilling an oil field that is located under flat land is easier than drilling for very tight oil — oil that lies underwater or under a combination of flat as well as hilly, rolling, developed, partially developed or undeveloped areas known for their pervasive, pristine, beautiful environment. Further, the geological formations in the Monterey Shale area are a victim of their youth. They are older than Mel Brooks, but at 6-16 million years, the Monterey Shale is significantly younger than The Bakken. Shale deposits, as a result, are much thicker and “more complex.” According to David Hughes (Post Carbon Institute, 2013), existing Monterey Shale fields are restricted to relatively small geographic areas. “The widespread regions of mature Monterey Shale source rock amendable to high tight oil production from dense drilling…likely do not exist…” “… While many oil and gas operators and energy analysts suggest that it is only a matter of time and technology before ‘the code is cracked’ and the Monterey produces at rates comparable to Bakken and Eagle Ford,” this result is likely is not in cards…the joker is not wild. “Owing to the fundamental geological differences between the Monterey and other tight oil plays and in light of actual Monterey oil production data,” valid comparisons with other tight oil areas are…wishful thinking. Apart from environmental opposition and the costs of related delays, the oil underwater or underground in the Monterey Shale is just not amenable to the opportunity costing dreams of oil company CEOs, unless the price of oil exceeds $150 a barrel. According to new studies from the EIA, the recoverable reserves, instead of being as it projected earlier from 13.7 to 15.4 barrels, will be closer to 0.6 barrels.

If you believe in “drill, baby, drill” as a policy and practice, the cost/price conundrums are real. Low costs per barrel for oil appear at least marginally helpful to consumers and increases in oil costs seem correlated with recessions. Increased production of tight oil depends on much higher per barrel prices and, in many instances, increased debt., Neither in the long term is s good for the economic health of the nation or its residents.

Breaking the strong link between transportation and oil (and its derivative, gasoline) would make it easier to weave wise policy and private-sector behavior through the perils of extended periods of high gasoline prices and oil-related debt. Expanding the number of flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) through inexpensive conversion of older cars and extended production of flex-fuel vehicles by Detroit would provide a strong market for alternative transition fuels and put pressure on oil companies to open up their franchises and contracts with stations to a supposedly key element of the American creed-competition and free markets. The result, while we encourage and wait for renewable fuels to reach prime time status, would be good for America, good for the environment and good for consumers.

Right, wrong and indifferent — the AAA, oil and alternative fuels

My favorite automobile service group — the AAA — has once again treaded without fear or trepidation into analysis. Remember earlier, when it suggested that E15 harms engines, based on what looked like an oil-industry-generated study? The AAA’s methodology was weak and its conclusions suspect, a judgment supported by the EPA’s response. According to the agency, AAA’s conclusions were erroneous and based on a limited sample. EPA’s own findings were generated from a relatively large sample of cars, indicating that E15 is safe for most engine types and reaffirmed the wisdom of its approval of E15 usage.

I was surprised to find an article in Oil Price by blogger Daniel Graeber, based to a large degree on comments from AAA’s Michael Green suggesting that the oil shale boom has prevented gas prices from going higher than they are now. Graeber approvingly quoted Green, who said, “Sadly, the days of cheap gasoline may never return for most American drivers despite the recent boom in North American crude oil production.” Assumedly, Green meant that the cost of drilling tight oil will remain high and the costs per barrel of oil will follow suit.

Green apparently went on to indicate that political leaders, particularly, members of Congress who argue for a drill-baby-drill policy, are wrong to link more wells to significant price relief for folks who find gas costs a real problem.

The AAA is right when it suggests that, despite the oil shale boom and signs of increasing demand in America, refineries are sending increased amounts of oil-based products overseas. Understandably, their patriotism doesn’t extend to accepting a lower price for oil in the U.S. when they can get higher prices overseas.

The article appears inconsistent, when at one point it mentions that crude oil inventories are running above average, and later blames current exports for low supplies and low supplies for preventing a drop in prices at the pumps.

Both are correct in indicating sales of oil products abroad probably do have an effect on costs-up to now probably marginal. Certainly, if Washington extends export privileges, increased sales of oil abroad may have a more significant impact on consumer costs. More relevant, however, concerning gasoline costs at the pump, will be economic recovery in the U.S., investor speculation and the oil sector’s ability to manage prices.

Cheap oil has been, recently, and likely will be in the future, a fantasy. The cost of oil per barrel has hovered at around $100 and upward for an extended period, and drilling in shale is relatively expensive. Continuous exogenous and existential (don’t you like those words — they create great passion and emotion) threats from the Middle East and Eastern Europe, also, will likely tilt oil prices upward in the near future.

I would commend the AAA, assumed by many to be the leading advocate for automobile owners in the nation, for grasping the fact that the behavior of producers is likely to lead to higher gas costs and create burdens, particularly for low and moderate-income groups. Now with this knowledge, shouldn’t the AAA argue for breaking oil’s near monopoly on fuel? If the AAA was really interested in helping vehicle owners lower their cost of fuel, it might take the lead in arguing for choice at the pump. Wouldn’t it be great if they really stood up for more open fuel markets as well as alcohol-based transitional fuels, such as ethanol and methanol? Competition at the pump from flex-fuel vehicles, combined with conversion of older vehicles to flex-fuel cars would, over time, mute increases in gas prices and, at the same, time generate environmental benefits for a better America. Support for alcohol-based fuels is consistent with support for renewable fuels, if one is concerned about the environment and GHG emissions. Let’s bring them on as fast as we can. But let’s acknowledge that renewable fuels are not really ready yet for prime time. They are too expensive for many Americans and their technical limitations, particularly concerning electric batteries, are not yet coincident with the desires of most Americans.

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.

Drill Baby Drill and Increase US Exports of Oil: A Conundrum

Over the last year or so, many in the media have commented on the Saudization of America. Readers and viewers have been told that drilling for tight oil will lead to reduced imports and energy “independence.” Luck, or perhaps because of good ole American ingenuity in developing fracking technology, America, the Saudization folks indicate, will no longer be tethered to Middle East petroleum. “Amen” said a chorus of readers and viewers to the “drill baby drill crowd” during recent previous Presidential elections. What good red-blooded American could be against accessing America’s apparent ample supply of oil from dense rock formations or shale? Another popular win for “manifest destiny,” particularly when promises are made by the oil industry and believed by consumers that we will soon be blessed with oil independence as well as stable and ultimately lower gas prices. Who could ask for anything more?

I do not want to get into the “drill baby drill” debate– at least at this juncture. Nor, for the purposes of this piece, do I want to dwell on the opportunities and yes the problems related to fracking.  What I do want to focus on is the impact of the so-called Saudization of America on consumer prices for gasoline.

Since for most of us, gas is an inelastic good and, although we express anger or dismay at its costs, we will pay the price. No doubt, you, your wife, or significant other must get gas to get to work, to shop, to take kids to school or play, to go to a doctor, and to vacation. For folks with low and moderate incomes, the costs of fuel often constrains the purchase of basic goods and services and even job choices and access to decent housing because of limited transportation budgets. Happily, Americans are getting some relief from recently sky rocketing fuel prices during this holiday season.

But think about it: Even at today’s “low” national average price of “only” about $3.25 (I paid $3.63 for regular gas this morning), the price remains relatively high. Further, the recent drop in prices probably had relatively little to do with increased production. More important in setting prices were likely lower demand, the continued slow growth of the U.S. economy, the reduction of tension in the Middle East, wall street banker and speculative behavior, monopolistic type conditions limiting consumer choices at the pump set by the oil industry as well as oil company decisions concerning market management. (It would be interesting if some independent qualified think tank or government agency undertook an in-depth factor analysis concerning variables affecting gas prices.)

Increased oil production and refinement in America likely will not have a major impact on price or price stability. Despite being produced here, oil is traded globally. Understandably and legitimately from their perspective, the behavior of producers, refiners and investors is not governed by patriotism or security interests but by return on investment (ROI). Their voices often seem bi polar. They argue for more drilling here to benefit U.S. consumers, but they often, less than transparently, translate drilling and new production into dollars stimulated by new exports or relaxation of export regulations into pleas for new drilling.

Clearly, a good share of the oil produced in the U.S. — unlike Las Vegas stories– will not stay in the U.S. It will be sold to other nations. While the oil export train (or in this case the boat) has not yet left the station, political pressure from the oil industry and its friends is beginning to generate a Washington buzz that current federal restrictions on oil exports, in place since the Arab Boycott, soon will be reduced significantly. When big oil speaks, many in Washington listen! Yet, right now production per year meets only about 50 percent of demand in the nation–

According to CNBC, “oil companies are securing licenses to export U.S. crude at the fastest rate since records began, as the shale boom leads to swelling supplies along the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. government granted 103 licenses to ship crude oil abroad in the latest fiscal year, up by more than half from the 66 approved in fiscal 2012 and the highest since at least 2006…”

Bloomberg News notes that the surge in U.S. oil production has made the nation the world’s largest fuel exporter. Exports to Brazil grew by almost 60 percent and Venezuelan imports from the U.S. grew by more than 55 percent; So much for the cold war between the U.S. and Venezuela.  As Bloomberg reports, U.S. exports of refined productions, such as gasoline and diesel, have reached new highs and increased by 130 percent since 2007.

Interestingly, Canada, despite the fact that it is the largest exporter of oil to the U. S. and has ample shale oil resources, has been the primary beneficiary of increased licenses for exports in the U.S.  Less expensive U.S. gulf oil crude is a good deal for Canadians, particularly from eastern Canada. It’s cheaper than the Canadian alternative.

So despite all the noise, we still have a long way to go before we reach oil independence, a truism in part because U.S. oil will soon constitute a relatively and historically a large share of the global oil market.

Clearly, a less exuberant goal than achieving oil independence would be reducing oil dependency. Advocates of alternative fuels like natural gas and natural gas based ethanol and methanol have a strong case. Do you remember when Ronald Reagan strongly urged Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin wall?  President Obama, paraphrasing Reagan, should urge oil companies to tear down the barriers to competition at the pump and allow in alternative, safe and environmentally sound alternative fuels. Unlike other Presidents before him, the President, courageously, has already asked the nation to wean itself off of oil.

Offering consumers more choices than gasoline at “gas” stations will help reduce and stabilize fuel prices for consumers.  A double win for the nation and its residents: reduced dependency and stable as well as lower costs– Happy New Year!