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.

The oil industry and API, at it again. When will they ever learn?

Never a dull moment! The API is at it again. Just a few days ago, it dramatically issued a survey indicating that close to 70% of all consumers were worried that E15 (a blend of 15% ethanol and 85% gasoline) would damage their cars. While the survey was done apparently by a reputable firm, it was not attached to the press release, preventing independent experts or advocate group experts from commenting or verifying the questions and the sample. More importantly, the survey was preceded by an expensive oil industry media blitz that illustrated or talked about the so-called evils of ethanol. The survey and media show reflected an attempt by the oil industry to eliminate or weaken the renewable fuel mandates and lessen competition from alternative transitional fuels.

Americans are usually not Pavlovian in demeanor or behavior; we do ask for second and even third opinions from our doctors. But when only one group, in this case, the oil industry, has put out a continuous flashy very expensive multimedia message, the API’s survey results were almost preordained to reflect the published results. Whatever the industry wanted it got! If you tell a misleading partial story to create fear and uncertainty, long enough, it will likely influence many. In this case, the API, if it had a nose, its nose, similar to Pinocchio’s, would be growing and growing and growing.

Let’s look at the facts — never acknowledged by the API in its “Fuel for Thought” campaign.

  1. DOE effectively demolished the API-supported study many months ago indicating that the sampling approach was wrong and the analysis was faulty. DOE’s study used a much larger number of vehicles and was far more rigorous concerning methodology. (Just to let you know, API is an oil industry funded group.)
  2. Many countries around the world have used E15 and higher ethanol blends as a fuel without significant problems. They are seen as a way to reduce environmental problems. They are cheaper than gasoline and they reduce the need, at times, for oil imports. Put another way, they improve quality of life, lower costs to the consumer, and are good for the economy and security.
  3. Although oil company franchise agreements with gas stations have limited the number of stations able to sell E15, several states (mostly in the Midwest) with multi-fuel stations, have demonstrated the merits of E15. Early data appears to discount engine problems.

Hell, Henry Ford’s initial car was designed to run on pure ethanol until the temperance movement supported by Standard Oil banned the use of manufactured alcohol. I know Standard Oil was very concerned that Americans would drink ethanol at their favorite bars or in front of their favorite fire place with their favorite significant other. Praise be to Standard Oil for salvation!

The law (RFS) requires a 10% ethanol blend with gasoline. More than a year ago, EPA OK’d the sale of E15 (for most cars particularly those produced after 2001). In June, the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal by the oil industry of EPA’s standards.

API’s media campaign raises the food versus fuel fight canard because ethanol is produced mostly from corn as the feedstock. But the narratives neglect to raise the fact that the evidence concerning the negative impact on food is disputed by reputable analysts who indicate that, for the most part, the corn used for ethanol production is not your friendly grocery counter corn. Put another way, most of the corn to ethanol conversion comes from corn not able to be used for food. Yes, there still maybe some impacts on corn production and prices because of the growers reallocation of land, in light of the differential between corn and ethanol prices, to ethanol. However, many studies suggest that if a negative food impact exists, it is relatively minor. It is a worthy debate.

It appears, that API, conveniently, forgets to mention that ethanol can be produced efficiently and effectively from natural gas and that cellulosic based ethanol is now being manufactured or will soon be manufactured in large volumes by several companies. Further, Clean Energy Fuels announced this week that it will start selling fuel made from methane in landfills and other waste sources in over 40 stations in California. Success of these initiatives, likely, will mean the end of the fuel versus food issue. If success is combined with the inexpensive conversion of existing cars to flex fuel cars permitting them to use alternative fuels, America will be blessed with a much cleaner, environmentally safe, and cheaper alternatives to gasoline- assuming the oil industry doesn’t block their sale at fuel stations.

Clearly, the oil industry does not want competition at the pump from ethanol…whether corn, cellulosic, garbage or natural gas. The American public should be wary of misleading guerilla marketing through industry funded surveys or not so benign expensive media blasts by captive organizations like API. Hopefully, the American consumer will not be confused for long. Paraphrasing a song by Peter, Paul and Mary about war and peace and a statement by President Lincoln, when will the oil companies ever learn?, and, if they don’t learn, when will they recognize “they can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time but they cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Robert Rapier loves methanol

Robert Rapier – “R2” as he calls himself in good scientific notation – is one of the smartest people out there when it comes to energy. A master’s graduate in chemical engineering from Texas A&M University, Rapier is chief technology officer and executive vice president for Merica International, a renewable energy company. He also writes a regular column at

And he is a big enthusiast of methanol.

In a series of recent columns, Rapier has made a strong case that methanol is our best option for replacing foreign oil. He believes it can be done cleanly and in a way that also reduces carbon emissions. Unfortunately, one of the biggest impediments, according to Rapier, is the huge political momentum behind corn ethanol, which he regards as an inferior fuel. He is also highly critical of the biofuels effort, which has attracted so much attention in the form of venture capital from Silicon Valley.

“You can buy methanol today for around $1 per gallon,” he said. “This is a big, well-established business that does not receive heavy subsidies and government support as ethanol does. On a per BTU basis, unsubsidized methanol costs $17.61 per million BTUs. You can buy ethanol today – ethanol that has received billions in taxpayer subsidies – for $1.60 per gallon. On a per BTU basis, heavily subsidized and mandated ethanol sells for $21.03 per million BTUs.”

Yes, you read that correctly. We are paying 20% more for ethanol, enabled via highly paid lobbyists, heavy government intervention, taxpayer funds and protectionist tariffs than we are for methanol that has long been produced subsidy-free.

Unfortunately, the decision to mandate ethanol consumption while ignoring methanol has been based much more on politics than on the two fuels comparative advantages. “The fact is, methanol simply has not had the same sort of political favoritism, but is in [Rapier’s] opinion a far superior option to ethanol as a viable, long-term energy option for the world.”

Where biofuels are concerned, Rapier states that the effort has always been predicated on the assumption that we will eventually switch from corn ethanol to much more abundant, non-food cellulosic feedstocks such as switch grass. We just have to wait until somebody comes up with a way to break down cellulose. What investors do not seem to realize is that techniques for breaking down cellulose have been around since the 19th century. They just have proved to be too expensive.

But “high costs have never been a deterrent for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who wielded Moore’s Law as the solution to every problem. In their minds, the advanced biofuel industry would mimic the process by which computer chips continually became faster and cheaper over time. But advanced biofuels amounted to a fundamentally different industrial process that was already over 100 years old. A decade into this experiment it is clear that Moore’s Law isn’t solving the cost problem.”

(Actually, if you read George Gilder’s latest book, “Knowledge and Power,” you would realize that mathematicians such as Claude Elwood Shannon and John von Neumann have determined that information as an entirely separate entity from energy and matter. Moore’s Law applies only to information, not matter and energy.)

Rapier says biofuels will never succeed until the effort at developing them is redirected into producing methanol rather than ethanol once again:

For methanol, we can produce it from biomass via a similar process to how it is produced for $1 per gallon today. There are numerous biomass gasifiers out there. Some are even portable. They do not require high fossil fuel inputs and they utilize a much larger fraction of the biomass. They aren’t limited to cellulose. They gasify everything – cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin, sugars and proteins – all organic components. And if there is also a heating application, the combined heat and fuel or power efficiency of a biomass to methanol via gasification route is going to put cellulosic ethanol to shame. In any case, the efficiency of biomass gasification to methanol is going to put cellulosic ethanol to shame, because it doesn’t have to deal with all of that water present in the ethanol process.

Altogether, Rapier argues that methanol has a much broader potential feedstock, is easier and cheaper to produce and could be manufactured in much larger quantities than corn ethanol. And this doesn’t even consider the possibility of synthesizing it from our superabundant supplies of natural gas. The problem is that “methanol doesn’t have a big lobby and 42 senators from farm states it can count on for perpetual support.”

At Fuel Freedom Foundation, we believe we should pursue all these options – ethanol, biofuels, compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG) and electric cars. They all offer the possibility of reducing the $350 billion we shell out each year for imported oil. But we can’t help but admire Rapier’s observation that the methanol option is greatly underappreciated. The reasons are: 1) the EPA restrictions that make it illegal to use in car engines and 2) the lack of any large constituency such as the farm lobby that stands to gain from it. For that reason alone we’re very encouraged by Rapier’s writings and look forward to more in the future.

Matching ethics and policy: Free markets, subsidies and fuel

There is probably a reason that ethicists rarely sit at the public policy table with respect to transportation fuel. Let’s think about it for a few minutes in the context of a diverse group of econo-ethicists. Let’s match the ethics of presently monopolistic gasoline markets, the huge oil subsidies granted to oil companies and, yes (for environmental folks), the gift of HOV lanes and tax subsidies for those with the “right” cars, with:

  • John Rawls’ ethical guideline that we should respond to the least among us as we would want to be responded to ourselves,
  • Jeremy Bentham’s ground rule that we should seek the greatest good for the greatest number),
  • Karl Hayek’s admonition that the least government is, generally, the best government,
  • Michael Douglas’ statement in “Wall Street” that “greed is good.”

Currently, oil company policy and behavior with respect to gas stations they own, franchise or influence is very restrictive. Even when they allow alternative fuels to be sold in gas stations, companies play the role of Cinderella’s ugly stepmother. Alternative fuel pumps, often, are placed apart from the gas pumps, sometimes out of sight. If they were human, the alternative fuel pumps, legitimately, would have a discrimination case, need psychiatrists and would probably cry a lot because of loneliness. Lacking choices, consumers must pay an extra tariff for gasoline. Prices for gas reflecting little or no competition are arbitrarily high.

Congress supports the oil monopoly at the pump. It has failed to allow methanol as a transportation fuel and has not passed open fuels legislation.

Certainly, an ethical judgment of the current fuel market and those who establish its limited boundaries should be easy to make. You would get an “A” from both Rawls and Bentham as well as from Hayek if you said, “It is rough on the poor who pay upwards of 15-17% of their income for gasoline and it forces extra costs for all of us at the pump.” Finally, it illustrates Hayek’s warning that too much government restrictions limit freedom. Gosh, who ever thought I would agree with Hayek, even in a limited way? Perhaps, however, Mike Douglas wins this one. Greed has been good for the oil companies.

Douglas also wins big on tax subsidies to oil companies. Yet, despite diverse ethical principles, everyone scores well on the granting of tax subsidies to the oil industry. Both liberal and conservative groups, as well as the Congressional Research Service (CRS) agree that many of the tax subsidies are not needed to secure production and distribution. Why, then, does the industry benefit from such beneficence? History granted them favored status; politics and money give them influence at budget-making time.

I was in favor of (and probably deep down still tilt toward) HOV lanes. But, I do have some real doubts about tax subsidies, particularly subsidies not tied to income.

I am worried about the ethics of both. Most of the benefits of HOV lanes and tax subsidies to secure buyers of cars that use them go to relatively affluent income folks. Both are paid for by general taxpayers, including income-deprived tax payers.

Further, most low and moderate-income households face severe budget constraints if they try to buy new so called clean vehicles that are now allowed in the HOV lanes and secure tax benefits. No preference is granted to other alternative fuels like ethanol, and the federal government does not readily allow the relatively inexpensive conversion of existing cars to alternative fuels — methanol, ethanol. States generally do not permit the small number of converted cars in HOV lanes. Lastly, in terms of debits, HOV lanes do increase congestion, when they are not utilized to the fullest, increasing driving costs for every one of us who are not so lucky to own the “right” vehicles.

So HOV lanes and tax subsidies for favored cars do raise ethical questions. They don’t treat the least among us fairly, they are not good yet for the greatest number of us, and they reflect government behavior that reflects a bit of shooting from the hip before tough analysis concerning efficiency, and effectiveness. Let me see, Rawls, Bentham and Hayek would at least be sensitive to the involved ethical issues.

Alright, are you happy, indifferent or sad that ethicists are not at the policy table? Let me know.