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Abbott and Costello, war, sectarianism and Middle Eastern oil — a trifecta

Abbott & CostelloI bet only those on Medicare, like me, remember the old Abbott and Costello joke, “Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third”… or something like that.

The dialogue was funny at the time. But the joke, in some respects, tracks the current, very serious situation in the Middle East: Who’s on first, a very militant Sunni group called ISIS; What’s on second, well maybe Iraq (if it can get its act together, which is increasingly unlikely); and, I Don’t Know exactly who’s on third, maybe the Peshmerga from among the Kurdish Regional State in Iraq and, perhaps soon, a surprise addition from the Kurdish PKK military group living among Kurds in Turkey. Who are the umpires? Perhaps Israel. Maybe OPEC. How about the world’s respected ethicists — if they can ever agree.

Isn’t this fun? Let’s try it again, for there are several possible lineups. Let’s try this one: Who’s on first, how about the Assad-related Shiites in Syria. What’s on second, the new caliphate in Iraq and Syria. I Don’t Know exactly who’s on third, maybe, but unlikely, in light of its numerous conflicting interests (e.g., NATO, Islam, etc.), Turkey. Who’s the hapless lonely umpire or umpires at home plate? Perhaps, the U.N. — the so-called moderate rebels. Perhaps the USA, England or France, or perhaps all three. After all, each Western country has had, at best, a difficult, morally ambiguous historical record in the area, and faces a tough, complex future. Justice and fairness have not always guided their respective objectives and actions. If you believe they have, step up to the plate and you can buy the Brooklyn Bridge for a dollar.

It’s a crazy baseball game! I know the Israelis are in the stands but they have found it tough to get emotional. In their view, at least, both of the team’s captains are Iranian. Since it’s not in the official lineup, the game has little meaning to the Israelis.

We are not sure that all the batters, base runners and umpires are on the same team or in the same game. At times, some players appear to run right and some left. Some run into each other. Others don’t run at all. Most appear to be playing by Middle Eastern norms, which mean they frequently change uniforms, roles, rules and alliances. The umpires seem to be confused and frustrated. They may be ready soon to go for a higher legal or spiritual reviewer but they cannot agree on which one (e.g., the International Court of Justice, God or his or her surrogate).

I yearn for the simplicity of just a year or two ago — before ISIS. Many of our leaders and media types referred to America’s role then in terms of seeking stability in the Middle East. Some even suggested, often knowing better, that it was based on a commitment to establishing western-style democracy. Very few played Don Quixote, or even a good forensic economist searching for the truth. U.S. and Western involvement in the Middle East for a long time has been, to a large degree, premised on dependency on oil. As dependency on oil imports was recently reduced significantly to about 30-35 percent of total oil use because of tight oil development, increased fuel standards, and a slow growth economy, the U.S. has agreed to defend our allies’ right to unfettered international oil transportation from wellhead to refinery.

Democracy and oil proved to be an uneasy mix. Secular animosity and intense internal as well as external competition for oil revenue and market share seemed much more difficult than the naive assertion made after 9/11 that the Iraq citizenry would welcome U.S. military with cheering crowds — shades of WWII after U.S. troupes retook Paris. If only it could have been!

What has occurred in the past year or so has once again shifted the game players, the rules and roles (the ecology of Middle Eastern games). The rise of ISIS and its quick absorption of land in both Syria and Iraq combined with its brutality toward the vanquished in captured territories as well as detained westerners has shifted U.S. and its new coalition’s (e.g., England, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, Kurds, etc.) attention away from getting rid of Assad to stopping establishment of the caliphate. No longer is democracy a major goal. How could it be with such tested democratic states as Saudi Arabia and Qatar front and center? I shouldn’t be cynical…or should I? Now the focus is on stability — translated: salvage what can salvaged from what is left of Iraq and assumedly prevention of what appears to be an increasing sectarianism from disintegrating into wars fought over God and Mammon or maybe my God and your Mammon or vice versa. The new coalition led by the U.S., apart from the British and French includes:

  • Implicitly, Iran, despite Iran’s enmity and its support of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
  • Syria, despite its vicious regime, a regime that has killed or terrorized large sectors of its population, far more than ISIS has to date and probably will far into the future.
  • Qatar, whose chameleon foreign policy reminds one constantly of Ronald Reagan’s quote about the Russians, “Trust but verify.”
  • Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-dominated kingdom, that, until the Arab Spring, seemed reasonably secure in its religious, non-democratically based, very conservative legal framework, as well as a caste and class system based on discrimination and corruption.
  • Iraq, a country that, despite U.S. support, is a nation in name only. It is divided by sectarianism into at least three potential would-be nations — each one dominated by dominant religious and ethnic groups. Its central government is unable or unwilling to secure consensus as to governance and military approaches. Its army, despite years of U.S.-supported training and U.S.-supplied weaponry has been, up to now, no match for ISIS. Its sectarian-controlled militias are not committed to consensus building and may end up as a threat to further nation building.

The new coalition has shaken up the Middle East and suggests the old adage that, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Endorsement of the present nation states in the Middle East, as well as opposition to territorial aggrandizement and religious extremism, provides the rationale for U.S. and Western involvement in the current war.

But, irrespective of the coalition’s normative marching orders about stopping extremism and a big land grasp, I suspect that oil or trafficking in oil remains a key factor, indirectly or directly, in back-room decisions to push back ISIS boundaries. Let’s see: the Saudis must soon consider increasing the price of a barrel of oil if it is to avoid the need to cut back on services to its citizens and risk tension. It also must soon consider an increase in oil prices if it is to sustain its defense budget in terms of the present conflict with ISIS. While the U.S. has surpassed the Saudis in oil production, Saudi oil is needed by the West and Asia to avoid significant future price rises premised on future growth. As a result, the U.S. will remain a protector of oil transit. Apart from fearing the collapse of Iraq for political, economic and moral reasons, the U.S. is still committed to safeguarding Iraq’s oil and the oil from one of its regions, the Kurdish Regional Government, for its allies and also for the revenue needed by both. Qatar is a conundrum. Today, it’s a western ally against ISIS; yesterday, reports indicated it supported militants in the Gaza. Which twin has the Tony? Where will it be tomorrow? Finally, remember ISIS needs oil for revenues to function as a government.

If only! If only we could find home-grown, market-acceptable substitutes for oil and its derivative gasoline that would relieve any hint or suspicion that oil or gasoline would be even an indirect consideration in a U.S. or Western nation decisions to go to war. We are not there yet, in terms of the majority of the vehicle owners. But we are getting close with alcohol-based fuels, biofuels, and hydrogen and electric cars.

By health check or economic necessity: A tale of two oil industries and their response to illness

By John Hofmeister and Marshall Kaplan

shutterstock_118647259A bad cold starts with a tickle in the throat and a languid day. It grows to painful swallows, stuffed sinuses and likely a fever. Does the patient treat the symptoms? Does he or she transform to avoid illness in the future?

Few oil company players will admit to it yet, but the future threatens a very bad cold for the current industry, or worse. Very few feel it coming because current business plans are robust and the workload is on overload. When they are recognized, the threats to the current business model are going to take more than treating the symptoms; there are transformative requirements to avoid getting permanently sick, including, for many, a difficult transition to alternative fuels. The industry’s investors are not likely to remain committed to oil. Neither are the politicians, the Wall Street analysts and the public who, for different reasons, some economic and some with concerns for the environment, are already shaky with respect to the future of oil. Unenthused investors actions, however, will speak much louder than concerned words.

Everyone agrees that conventional oil has peaked. Unconventional oil may be abundant, but it’s expensive. It’s so expensive that industry valuation is already being impacted by worried investors who don’t like companies borrowing cash to pay dividends. Shale formation decline rates demand evermore drilling. Drilling costs increase as more wells per amount of production are completed, raising per barrel costs. Sweet spots are finite as the majors have learned the hard way. They bought into many plays too late. The Middle East is, well, the Middle East. Don’t look for reduced tension in the near future. Do look for OPEC nations to increasingly shift oil for export into oil for local consumption — a residual of the Arab Spring. Business as usual is history. Brazilian, East African, Russian and Arctic production opportunities abound, except that the degrees of difficulty are unclear and uncertain, but are sure to be costly. The high costs and regulatory uncertainties of oil limit global growth and nourish alternative fuel prospects. Oil investors don’t like sore throats emerging from hard to swallow realities. They will want to create a new reality to protect their financial wellbeing.

The costs of carbon have yet to be added onto oil and we know they’re coming. There’s debate over the form of payment, not the reality. Take a look not only at the number of governments backing carbon constraints coming out of this year’s climate meeting at the UN, but, more importantly, count the companies! Count the crowd recently claiming the high ground from Central Park to Midtown in New York and other cities around the world. The oil industry’s low favorability gives it limited public influence. While special-interest money may run out the clock on near-term legislation in the next Congress, for the industry, it not a long term solution. Civil society and political trends are inevitably contrary to the industry’s status quo interests. The rhetoric alone will tax the bronchial capacity of oil and gas leaders; investors will cease shaking hands with infected stocks.

Cash is to oil what gasoline is to the internal combustion engine. Higher upstream costs and more expensive fuels reduce consumer demand and, inevitably, cash flow. Downstream cash can’t make up the difference for higher upstream capital (cash) outlays when consumers drive less or take advantage of increasing availability of lower-cost alternative fuels, despite the BTU and/or mileage disadvantages of alcohol fuels versus oil products.

Finally, when divestment trends start to impact the industry, perhaps initially not directly through actual shifting of resources, but because of the growing perceptions of the risk of stranded assets, opportunity costing equations will begin to hit hard. The value associated with increasing capital costs for oil development will be muted. With ever higher costs, more difficult unconventional production, more challenging resource basins and tighter regulatory scrutiny, along with environmental constraints, existing assets may never get produced. The probable reserve that never makes it to proven becomes ever less valuable with time, perhaps even worthless. Investors don’t like that. Oil price to support such production is unsustainable; the price rises until it crashes; production cannot recover from the collapse because sustainable alternative fuels will have taken increasing market share. To remain competitive, oil may not be able to climb above the $55 – 75 range. This prospect will cause full blown pneumonia for oil companies. Most still do not see it coming. For OPEC countries who are under inconsistent pressures — first to increase exports for needed revenues at home to fund services for an often restive population; second, to reduce exports to provide energy and gasoline products to larger population numbers, it could present real challenges affecting political stability.

Some companies that sense it coming will not wait for the cold symptoms to lodge in their respiratory systems. They will get out in front with natural gas, using an entirely different cost/price structure to displace high cost oil by producing natural gas for fuels, including ethanol, methanol, CNG and LNG. They’ll also embrace biofuels as a sustainable and carbon-reducing alternative to oil products only. In both cases, their cash flows and capital outlays will fund reasonable and rational alternative investments in downstream and midstream infrastructure to produce, distribute and sell alternative fuels, extending their business models and capabilities rather than risking everything on their past model. They’ll choose investor and their own health and economic necessity as the basis of a new business model transforming the mobility industry with fuels competition.

A handful of smart companies will astutely come to grips with their industry’s endemic inability to change their historic focus on oil as their base business. They’ll see diversity as an opportunity to run the race with competitive fuels, and they’ll recognize that oil and gasoline will only be able to sustain their monopoly status at the pump for a relatively short period of time. They will trade one form of steel in the ground for another, bringing the competencies of size, scale and execution to an ever-growing, oil-displacing, alternative fuels industry. In the process, they will simultaneously reduce the size of the oil upstream capital, cash, environmental and stranded asset problems that alienated investors, and, at times, the public, particularly related to emissions and other pollutants.

With a proper health check, after scanning the industry’s economic and environmental horizons, they acknowledge the inevitability of the changing critical role of investors. Their own financial health and economic necessity will redefine the role of oil and change the competitive landscape.

 

John Hofmeister, Former President Shell Oil Company (retired), Founder and CEO Citizens for Affordable Energy, Author of Why We Hate the Oil Companies: Straight Talk from an Energy Insider (Palgrave Macmillan 2010)

Marshall Kaplan, Advisor Fuel Freedom and Merage Foundations, Senior Official in Kennedy and Carter Administrations, Author

Religion, structural changes in the oil Industry and the price of oil and gasoline

Oil barrelAmericans — in light of the decline in oil and gas prices — don’t take happy selfies just yet! Clearly, the recent movement of oil prices per barrel below $80 and the cost of gasoline at the pump below $3 a gallon lend cause for, at least strategically, repressed joy among particularly low-income consumers, many of whose budgets for holiday shopping have been expanded near 10 percent. Retail stores are expressing their commitment to the holiday by beginning Christmas sales pre-Thanksgiving. Sure, sales profits were involved in their decisions, once it appeared to them that lower gas prices were here to stay, at least for a while. But don’t be cynical; I am sure the spirit moved them to play carols as background music and to see if in-store decorations made it easier for shoppers to get by headlines of war, climate change and other negative stuff and into, well yes, a buying mood. If retail sales exceed last year’s and GNP is positively affected, it will provide testimony and reaffirm belief that God is on America and the free market’s side, or at least the side of shopping malls and maybe even downtowns. Religious conversions might be up this year…all because of lower costs of gasoline at the pump. The power of the pump!

But, holy Moses (I am ecumenical), we really haven’t been taken across the newly replenished figurative Red Sea yet. There are road signs suggesting we won’t get there, partly because of the historical and current behavior of the oil industry. Why do I say this?

If history is prologue, EIA’s recent projections related to the continued decline of oil and gasoline prices will undergo revisions relatively soon, maybe in 6 months to a year or so. I suspect they will reflect the agency’s long-held view that prices will escalate higher during this and the next decade. Tension in the Middle East, a Saudi/OPEC change of heart on keeping oil prices low, a healthier U.S. economy, continued demand from Asia (particularly China), slower U.S. oil shale well development as well as higher drilling costs and the relatively short productive life span of tight oil wells, and more rigorous state environmental as well as fracking policies, will likely generate a hike in oil and gasoline prices. Owners, who were recently motivated to buy gas-guzzling vehicles because of low gas prices, once again, may soon find it increasingly expensive to travel on highways built by earthlings.

Forget the alternative; that is, like Moses, going to the Promised Land on a highway created by a power greater than your friendly contractor and with access to cheap gas to boot. Moses was lucky he got through in time and his costs were marginal. He was probably pushed by favorable tides and friendly winds. The wonderful Godly thing! He and his colleagues secured low costs and quick trips through the parting waters.

Added to the by-now conventional litany concerning variables affecting the short- and long-term cost and price of gasoline and oil (described in the preceding paragraph), will likely be the possible structural changes that might take place in the oil industry. If they occur, it will lead to higher costs and prices. Indeed, some are already occurring. Halliburton, one of the sinners in Iraq concerning overpricing services and other borderline practices (motivated by the fear of lower gas prices), has succeeded in taking over Baker Hughes for near $35 billion. If approved by U.S. regulators, the combined company will control approximately 30 percent of the oil and gas services market. According to experts, the new entity could capture near 40 percent relatively quickly. Sounds like a perfect case for anti-trust folks or, if not, higher oil and gas costs for consumers.

Several experts believe that if low gas prices continue, oil companies will examine other profit-making, competition-limiting and price-raising activities, including further mergers and acquisitions. Some bright iconoclasts among them even suggest that companies may try to develop and produce alternative fuels.

Amen! Nirvana! Perhaps someday oil companies will push for an Open Fuels Law, conversion of cars to flex-fuel vehicles and competition at the pump…if they can make a buck or two. Maybe they will repent for past monopolistic practices. But don’t hold your breath! Opportunity costing for oil companies is complex and unlikely to quickly breed such public-interest related decisions. Happy Thanksgiving!

10 reasons why falling oil prices is good for the U.S. and replacement fuels

While they might not make the Late Show with David Letterman, here are ten reasons why the fall in oil and gas prices, if it is sustained for a while, is, on balance, good for the U.S. and replacement fuels.

  1. U.S. consumers are getting a price break. While the numbers differ by researchers, most indicate that on average they have saved near $80 billion. According to The Wall Street Journal, every one cent drop in gasoline adds approximately a billion dollars to nationwide household consumption.
  2. Low- and moderate-income households will have extra money for basic goods and services, including housing, health care and transportation to work.
  3. Increased consumer spending will be good for the economy and overall job growth. Because of the slowdown in production and the loss of jobs in the oil shale areas and Alaska, the net positive impact on GNP will be relatively small, higher at first as consumers make larger purchases, and then lower as oil field economic declines are reflected in GNP.
  4. Low prices for oil and gas will impede drilling in tight oil areas and give the nation time to develop much-needed regulations to protect environmentally sensitive areas. Oil is now under $80 a barrel. The price is getting close to the cost of drilling. Comments from producers and oil experts seem to suggest that $70-75 per barrel would begin to generate negative risk analyses.
  5. Low prices for oil and gas will make it tough on Russia to avoid the impact of U.S. and EU sanctions. Russia needs to export oil and gas to secure revenue to meet budget constraints. Its drilling and distribution costs will remain higher than current low global and U.S. prices.
  6. Low prices of oil and gas will reduce U.S. need to import oil and help improve U.S. balance of payments. Imports now are about 30 percent of oil used in the nation.
  7. Low prices of oil and gas will further reduce dependence on Middle East oil and enhance U.S. security as well as reduce the need to rely on military intervention. While the Saudis and allies in OPEC may try to undercut the price of oil per barrel in the U.S., it is not likely that they can sustain a lower cost and meet domestic budget needs.
  8. Low prices of oil and gas will create tension within OPEC. Some nations desiring to improve market share may desire to keep oil prices low to sustain market share, others may want to increase prices and production to sustain, if not increase, revenue.
  9. Low prices of oil and gas will spur growth in developing economies.
  10. Low prices for oil and gas will likely secure oil company interests in alternative fuels. It may also compel coalitions of environmentalists and others concerned with emissions and other pollutants to push for open fuel markets and natural gas based ethanol, methanol and cellulosic-based fuels as well as a range of renewable fuels.

We haven’t reached fuel Nirvana. The differential between gasoline and corn-based E85 has lessened in most areas of the nation and now appears less than the 20-23 percent needed to get consumers to think about switching to alternative fuels like E85. But cheaper replacement fuels appear on the horizon (e.g., natural gas-based ethanol) and competition in the supply chain likely will reduce their prices. Significantly, in terms of alternative replacement fuels, oil and gas prices are likely to increase relatively soon, because of: continuing tensions in the Middle East, a change of heart on the part of the Saudis concerning maintaining low prices, the increased cost of drilling for tight oil and slow improvements in the U.S. economy resulting in increased demand. The recent decline in hybrid, plug-in and electric car sales in the U.S. follows historical patterns. Cheap gas or perceived cheap gas causes some Americans to switch to larger vehicles (e.g., SUVs) and, understandably, for some, to temporarily forget environmental objectives. But, paraphrasing and editing Gov. Schwarzenegger’s admonition or warning in one of his films, unfortunately high gas prices “will be back…” and early responders to the decline of gasoline prices may end up with hard-to-sell, older, gas-guzzling dinosaurs — unless, of course, they are flex-fuel vehicles.

It’s the oil price and cost, baby

I began what turned out to be a highly ranked leadership program for public officials at the University of Colorado in the early ’80s, as dean of the Graduate School of Public Affairs. I did the same for private-sector folks when I moved to Irvine, Calif., to run a leadership program involving Israeli startup CEOs for the Merage Foundations. Despite the different profiles of participants, one of the compelling themes that seemed pervasive to both — for- profits in Israel and governments everywhere — was and remains building the capacity of leaders to give brief, focused oral presentations or elevator pitches (or, as one presenter once said, “how to seduce someone between the first and fifth floor”). A seduction lesson in oil economics in a thousand words or three minutes’ reading time!

Now that I got your attention! Sex always does it! During the last few days, I read some straightforward, short, informative articles on oil company and environmentalist group perceptions concerning the relationship between the price of oil per barrel and the cost of drilling. Their respective pieces could be converted into simple written or oral elevator pitches that provided strategic background information to the public and political leaders — information often not found in the news media — press, television, cable and social media — concerning oil company or environmentalist decision-making.

This is good news. Most of the academic and, until recently, media coverage of the decline of oil and gasoline prices generally focuses on the dollar or percentage drop in the price of oil and gasoline from a precise date … 3 months, 6 months, a year, many years ago, etc. And, at least by implication in many of its stories, writers assume decision-making is premised on uniform costs of drilling.

But recently, several brief articles in The Wall Street Journal, MarketWatch, OilPrice.com, etc., made it clear that the cost of drilling is not uniform. For example, there is a large variation internal to some countries depending on location and geography and an often larger variation between and among oil-producing nations. Oil hovers around $80 a barrel now, but the cost of drilling varies considerably. In Saudi Arabia, it is $30 per barrel or less on average; in the Arctic, $78; in Canada’s oil sands $74; and in the U.S, $62.

If you’re responsible for an oil company or oil nation budget, a positive cash flow and a profit, you are likely to be concerned by increasingly unfavorable opportunity cost concerning costs of drilling and returns per barrel. In light of current and possibly even lower prices, both companies and nations might begin to think about the following options: cutting back on production and waiting out the decline, pushing to expand oil exports by lowering costs in the hopes of getting a better than domestic price and/or higher market share, lessening your investment in oil and moving toward a more balanced portfolio by producing alternative fuels. If you believe the present price decline is temporary, and that technology will improve drilling cost/price per barrel ratios, you might consider continuing to explore developing wells.

Up to now, the Saudis have acted somewhat counterintuitively. They have created dual prices. Overall, they have sustained relatively high levels of production. For America, they have lowered prices to hold onto or build market share and undercut prices related to U.S. oil shale. For Asia, they have increased prices, hoping that demand, primarily from China and India, and solid production levels in the Kingdom, will not result in a visible drop in market share.

However, the Saudis know that oil revenue has to meet budget needs, including social welfare requirements resulting in part from the Arab Spring. How long they can hold onto lower prices is, in part, an internal political and budget issue, since oil provides a disproportionate share of the country’s public revenue. But, unlike the U.S. and many other nations, where drilling for tight oil is expensive, the Saudis have favorable ratio between production costs and the price of oil. Again, remember the cost of production in the U.S., on average, is about 100 percent above what it is in Saudi Arabia and some other OPEC nations. Deserts may not provide a “wow” place for all Middle East residents or some tourists looking for a place to relax and admire diverse landscapes, but, at the present time, they provide a source of relatively cheap oil. Further, they permit OPEC and the Saudis to play a more important global role in setting prices of oil and its derivative gasoline than their population numbers and their nonoil resources would predict. Lowering prices and keeping production relatively high in the Middle East is probably good for the world’s consumers. But as environmentalists have noted , both could slow oil shale development in the U.S. and with it the slowdown of fracking. Both could also interest oil companies in development of alternative fuels.

Oil-rich nations in the Middle East and OPEC, which control production, will soon think about whether to lower production to sustain revenues. In the next few months, I suspect they will decide to risk losing market share and increase per barrel oil prices. U.S policy and programs should be recalibrated to end the nation’s and West’s often metabolic response to what the Saudis do or what OPEC does. Support for alternative replacement fuels is warranted and will reduce consumer costs over the long haul and help the environment. It will also decrease America’s dependence on Middle East oil and reduce the need to “think” war as a necessary option when developing America’s foreign policy concerning the Middle East.

The decline of oil and gas prices, replacement fuels and Nostradamus

“It’s a puzzlement,” said the King to Anna in “The King and I,” one of my favorite musicals, particularly when Yul Brynner was the King. It is reasonable to assume, in light of the lack of agreement among experts, that the Chief Economic Adviser to President Obama and the head of the Federal Reserve Bank could well copy the King’s frustrated words when asked by the president to interpret the impact that the fall in oil and gasoline prices has on “weaning the nation from oil” and on the U.S. economy. It certainly is a puzzlement!

What we believe now may not be what we know or think we know in even the near future. In this context, experts are sometimes those who opine about economic measurements the day after they happen. When they make predictions or guesses about the behavior and likely cause and effect relationships about the future economy, past experience suggests they risk significant errors and the loss or downgrading of their reputations. As Walter Cronkite used to say, “And that’s the way it is” and will be (my addition).

So here is the way it is and might be:

1. The GDP grew at a healthy rate of 3.5 percent in the third quarter, related in part to increased government spending (mostly military), the reduction of imports (including oil) and the growth of net exports and a modest increase in consumer spending.

2. Gasoline prices per gallon at the pump and per barrel oil prices have trended downward significantly. Gasoline now hovers just below $3 a gallon, the lowest price in four years. Oil prices average around $80 a barrel, decreasing by near 25 percent since June. The decline in prices of both gasoline and oil reflects the glut of oil worldwide, increased U.S. oil production, falling demand for gasoline and oil, and the likely desire of exporting nations (particularly in the Middle East) to protect global market share.

Okay, what do these numbers add up to? I don’t know precisely and neither do many so-called experts. Some have indicated that oil and gas prices at the pump will continue to fall to well under $80 per barrel, generating a decline in the production of new wells because of an increasingly unfavorable balance between costs of drilling and price of gasoline. They don’t see pressure on the demand side coming soon as EU nations and China’s economies either stagnate or slow down considerably and U.S. economic growth stays below 3 percent annually.

Other experts (do you get a diploma for being an expert?), indicate that gas and oil prices will increase soon. They assume increased tension in the Middle East, the continued friction between the West and Russia, the change of heart of the Saudis as well as OPEC concerning support of policies to limit production (from no support at the present time, to support) and a more robust U.S. economy combined with a relaxation of exports as well as improved consumer demand for gasoline,

Nothing, as the old adage suggests, is certain but death and taxes. Knowledge of economic trends and correlations combined with assumptions concerning cause and effect relationships rarely add up to much beyond clairvoyance with respect to predictions. Even Nostradamus had his problems.

If I had to place a bet I would tilt toward gas and oil prices rising again relatively soon, but it is only a tilt and I wouldn’t put a lot of money on the table. I do believe the Saudis and OPEC will move to put a cap on production and try to increase prices in the relatively near future. They plainly need the revenue. They will risk losing market share. Russia’s oil production will move downward because of lack of drilling materials and capital generated by western sanctions. The U.S. economy has shown resilience and growth…perhaps not as robust as we would like, but growth just the same. While current low gas prices may temporarily impede sales of electric cars and replacement fuels, the future for replacement fuels, such as ethanol, in general looks reasonable, if the gap between gas prices and E85 remains over 20 percent  a percentage that will lead to increased use of E85. Estimates of larger cost differentials between electric cars, natural gas and cellulosic-based ethanol based on technological innovations and gasoline suggest an extremely competitive fuel market with larger market shares allocated to gasoline alternatives. This outcome depends on the weakening or end of monopolistic oil company franchise agreements limiting the sale of replacement fuels, capital investment in blenders and infrastructure and cheaper production and distribution costs for replacement fuels. Competition, if my tilt is correct, will offer lower fuel prices to consumers, and probably lend a degree of stability to fuel markets as well as provide a cleaner environment with less greenhouse gas emissions. It will buy time until renewables provide a significant percentage of in-use automobiles and overall demand.

James Bond, low oil prices, the Russians and OPEC

Calling Miss Moneypenny…we need you to get to James Bond quickly. Urgently! According to respected sources, there is a conspiracy in place on the part of the U.S. government and the West to both foster the increased production of shale gas and to drive down demand for gasoline in order to decrease Middle Eastern and Russian oil prices to levels well below production and distribution costs. The effort is aimed at breaking up OPEC, keeping the Saudis in line regarding present levels of production and hurting Russia until it comes to its senses concerning Ukraine. Can you put me in touch with Bond? He could be helpful in determining whether there is manipulation of the market? He’s just the best!

Paranoia has set in on the part of some in the media. The “glut” of oil on the market and low demand has made new drilling an “iffy” thing. The production costs of oil per barrel have not kept pace with revenue from sales. Prices at the pump for gasoline have decreased significantly.

How can we explain the phenomena, except by the presence of manipulation? Indeed, it’s enlightening to see (assumedly) planned, tough, provocative statements from so-called experts that often make headlines followed by weak “No it cannot be true” statements by the same experts to protect their credentials. Being bipolar is, in these instances, seemingly a characteristic.

Thanks to CNBC, here are some summary comments.

Patrick Legland, head of global research at Société Générale, recently said that it was an interesting coincidence that the two events — a drop in oil prices and lower demand — suggests that the U.S. could be deliberately manipulating the market to hurt Russia. Is it lower demand or is the U.S. clearly maneuvering? Legland goes on to indicate lack of in-depth knowledge. Timothy Ash, head of emerging markets research at Standard Bank suggested the U.S. would obviously deny any accusations of manipulation and there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case. “It’s very had to prove. I have heard such suggestions before. It is clearly useful for the West as it adds pressure on Russia” (and, I would add, on OPEC).

Oh, there is more, Jim Rickerts, managing director at Tangent, in a courageous and clear-cut example of ambiguity, stated that manipulation is plausible, although we have no evidence.

Clearly, the manipulation assertions, even though there is little evidence, sell more papers, build a bigger audience for cable news and provide fodder for Twitter and politicians. To the tune of “Politics and Polka,” sing with me, “apparent correlation is not causation, correlation is not causation.”

Oil prices are on a downward spiral, while production and distribution costs are going up in the U.S. and much of the West. It is implausible that the government is behind these trends. Consumer demand is down, even with lower prices at the pump, because of the economy. The government has relatively few tools, except the public and private bully pulpit in the short term, to leverage prices. The current boom in oil shale and resulting surpluses result from decisions made by an extended group of people often years ago — for example, oil companies who recognized that the era of easy-to-drill and cheap oil was coming to an end, speculators who led the market in trumping the benefits in investing long in oil shale and waiting for assumed value to catch up, consumers who seemed to be on a high concerning use of gasoline and technological breakthroughs that made oil from shale seem more amendable to cost benefit calculations.

While there are examples of government manipulating prices of goods (e.g., price controls), most have led to unpredictable and often negative results. The U.S. government, whether controlled by Republicans or Democrats, has not shown itself adept at price setting and manipulation. Nor is it good at keeping things secret — something necessary if it engaged in international manipulation. The New York Times would already have a leaked copy of the strategy and unsigned emails would have been given to the Washington Post. Public discussion of the strategy probably would risk sometimes fake, sometimes real approbation-depending who gets hurt or will get hurt. The U.S. would face copycats, as they have in the past, like the Saudis and OPEC and, maybe someday, Russia. They would say, “well, if the U.S. can do it, why can’t we?” The U.S. would calmly respond, No we are not manipulating oil markets. You give us too much credit and assume to many skills. Also, remember, the U.S and the oil companies believe in free markets. Don’t they? Well maybe, but clearly, not all the time with respect to the government and almost none of the time with respect to the oil companies? (Try getting replacement fuels at the pump of an oil-company franchised “gas” station.)

Okay, Miss Moneypenny, I changed my mind. We don’t need James Bond nor do we want to pay for the Bond girls. (Besides, the last Bond looked like President Putin when his shirt was unbuttoned and Sean Connery is on Medicare.) What we need is prayer and penitence for the experts for travailing in rumors. It is not terribly helpful when trying to sort out complicated issues related to oil prices and demand. If the government is somehow manipulating the market, many, even very pro-market advocates, will give it credit for a strategy that, should it be successful, might limit Russia’s desires concerning Ukraine and OPEC’s efforts at price fixing in the past. While the word has an evil sound, perhaps legitimately, manipulation would likely be judged better than war. But before credit is offered, look at the data and well-reviewed studies. Don’t fret, there is very little evidence that government manipulation has occurred in the recent past or is occurring at the present time.

What Do Religious Patents And Pope Francis Have To With Reducing Oil Dependency?

Israel has more patents per capita than any other nation in the world. Despite wars and tension at its borders, international investor interest remains high, particularly in high-tech industries. Indeed, high-tech industries continue to grow faster than any other industrial sector.

Okay. I have a serious question for questioning minds. The Jerusalem Post stated that pollution levels dropped by 99 percent on Saturday, Yom Kippur, a key Jewish religious holiday. The article indicated that nitrogen oxides decreased by 99 percent in the Gush Dan and Jerusalem regions and that other serious pollutants that affect health and well-being also dropped significantly. (Truth in advertising compels me to say that Israel has another holiday called Lag B’omer, where folks light bonfires to celebrate a wise sage in Israel’s past. Many also travel to the sage’s tomb. Both activities make air quality terrible. But understanding, apology, patience and penitence may result yet in friendlier environmental options.)

Wow, could Israel patent environmental behavior based in religion to secure a healthy environment? What would they patent? Perhaps, activities resulting from seeking forgiveness for previous driving and fuel related sins generating harmful pollutants. Asking forgiveness and apologizing are what Jews are supposed to do on the Holy Day. Or should they try patenting the environmental God, Himself or Herself, to make sure we have a major partner with respect to minimizing pollution in the environment. Here, they could include other possible partners like the scientists busy at work in Switzerland on the “God particle” in their patent.

Maybe Israel’s success with Yom Kippur behavior would lead Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Hindus and Mormons to define and patent Holy No Drive Days or better yet, because of lessons learned from Israel and possible Israeli involvement, lengthier environmental behavior days, weeks, months or years. Because of the negative impact on the global economy, international security and the environment of the world’s present dependency on oil and oil’s derivative gasoline, perhaps all the major religions and even the minor ones could agree on a range of environmentally friendly behavior changing initiatives, particularly related to one of the largest pollutants of them all…oil. Each patent would be based on prescriptions written or derived from religious interpretation of each religion’s environmental norms and tenants and holidays. Here’s one: Just say no to gasoline and yes to use of replacement fuels. Tithings from believers or congregants would support the effort. Figure it out, enough long holidays and the world might begin to reduce levels of pollution and likely GHG emissions, as well as oil-based wars and tension. Maybe we could develop a whole set of religious patents, that once patented, would be capable of being used by any nation or religion and any group or individual free. You know, building good, Godly behavior.

No government subsidies, no new government regulations. If behavioral changes stick, based on religious initiatives, our grandchildren and their grandchildren could live in a better world. While, likely impossible and the idea of patenting good behavior is more humorous than real, the thought seems worthy of a prayer or two and lots of meaningful sermons as well as interfaith action.

Collaboration by churches, synagogues and mosques could influence governments to jump in and also play a leadership role. Clearly, religiously inspired guilt is often aspirational and motivational — sometimes politically. Combined with religiously inspired individual commitment concerning grassroots activity, it could secure secular support for the development and implementation of comprehensive fuel policies concerning environmental, security and economic objectives — like social justice.

Where might we go with this? Probably not very far. But think of it. We spend much time arguing about God, and often much less time achieving godliness through reforming institutional and our behaviors as good stewards of the world. If we could marshal (excuse the pun), the leaders of some of the major religions of the world to help reduce harmful pollution from gasoline, GHG emissions and wars related to oil, over time, amendments to individual and group activities could help “convert” the bleak forecasts concerning climate change and increasingly dirty air for the better. Additionally, such an effort could also lead to a reduction of tension in areas like the Middle East, and global and national economic growth based on the development and distribution of both transitional replacement and renewable fuels.

I don’t expect invitations to discuss the matter from religious forums or meetings. But seeking collaboration from the religious community to end dependence on oil is something to think about in terms of the “what ifs.” Maybe in this context, a respected celebrated religious leader like Pope Francis could be asked to try to bring together religious leaders and even some secular ones to at least begin to discuss initiatives across man- or women-made national boundaries.

The proposed agenda would link short-term coordinated strategies to use transitional replacement fuels such as natural gas, ethanol, methanol and biofuels with longer-term plans (with immediate efforts) to increase the competitiveness of electric and hydro fuels. For my religious colleagues and secular friends, it seems to me that beginning these discussions is a moral and practical imperative.

Ruminations on oil donations, foreign nations and replacement fuels

The “Old Gray Lady,” The New York Times, did it again….its recent article indicating the extent of government funds from foreign countries supporting so-called independent think tanks and universities in the U.S. was enlightening and was also clearly in the public interest. Most of us policy wonks suspected or knew what the Times indicated on September 7. “More than a dozen prominent Washington research groups have received tens of millions of dollars from foreign governments in recent years while pushing United States government officials to adopt policies that often reflect the donors’ priorities…” The money is transforming the once-staid, think-tank world into a muscular arm of foreign government’s lobbying in Washington. And it has set off troubling questions about intellectual freedom — some scholars say they have been pressured to reach conclusions friendly to the government that is financing the research.” In this context, NATO, European, Middle East and Asian nations (e.g., Norway, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Japan, etc.) have been visible funders according to the Times and other media..

Before readers become holier than thou about the perception of perversion in foreign governments that link their support to what they want done regarding research and lobbying (implicit, if not explicit), they should know that the grant system in the U.S., in general, is not free of, at times, donor efforts to influence and/or sometimes pressure, whether it involves foreign governments, all levels of government in the U.S, business or foundation grants. Both have been and will remain the way of doing business.

I suspect attempts to influence or pressure research institutions or scholars are sometimes worse in social science research than in the sciences or engineering, where data, analysis and results can often claim at least some visible and quantifiable correlation or causation relationships. A donor’s ideological commitments also may predetermine and lessen the need for donors to try to negotiate the outcomes of grants or gifts. Not many liberal academics will apply for research money from the Koch Family Foundations, not many conservatives will likely go to the George Soros Open Society Foundations (OSF) for money.

Life is complicated for donors and recipients. Free speech and the free flow of ideas are embedded in the U.S. creed and the nation’s constitution. Truth in advertising in research grants and their products, a mythological spin-off, is often muted by the overwhelming influence and importance of money and the need for it, in light of fund shortages. However, the American public, for the most part, cannot easily separate the respected status of the Brookings Institution, the University of California, the Center For Global Development, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, etc. from their willingness to accept what seem clearly donor advocacy grants and subsequently to participate in what appears, to many, to be advocacy research and lobbying. The involved leaders, not always the researchers, of recipient institutions will deny the fact that research money sometimes comes with a price concerning legal, moral and often spoken words in grantor testimonials or contracts concerning obligations to search for the truth and increase wisdom concerning policy and program options.

Oil and oil-related companies and Middle Eastern nations seem now to be among the biggest givers and perhaps receive the biggest “take back” benefits. They fund schools and centers as well as analyses in and at major universities and independent think tanks, both within and outside universities. They have also funded “independent” scholars, chairs and specific RFPs (Request for Proposals) describing general and sometimes relatively specific areas of energy or transportation and fuel-related research. Significant oil and foreign money for policy-related research is also funded through third-party groups, which often mask the source of donations. Donors, understandably, expect benefits from supported research — at least consistency with and, in some cases, advocacy for their economic, social welfare and environmental objectives.

Perhaps one of the more egregious relationships concerning policy or program research involved the Coordinating Research Council (CRC), generally a mouthpiece of and also funded by the oil and automotive industry. Its relatively recent study debunking of E15 reflected the views of their sponsors — again the oil and auto industries. It indicated that E15 significantly harmed engines of many vehicle classes. The study was legitimately criticized by the EPA and others concerning methodology and content. Indeed, it and its implications concerning use of E15, was refuted in part or whole by the EPA’s more extensive analyses, by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and by other respected groups and individuals, some even associated with the auto industry. CRC’s efforts stimulated analyses and similar findings by groups like AAA— again based on even weaker methodology and unknown funding (likely mostly membership dues). Critics have pointed to AAA’s tenuous policy links to members and its long-time support by and of the auto and oil industries. Remember, more cars result in more gasoline use and increased ownership secures more AAA memberships.

Forget the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the proponents and critics of research concerning E15, or for that matter E85. At most times, policy choices and behavior are not based on perfection concerning data and analysis.

What concerns me the most is the predominance of oil and its friends’ money and the lack of transparency concerning funding sources and grant and gift requirements or constraints — both informal and formal.

Like the Times, I am also concerned about the dividing line between education and lobbying concerning grants and gifts provided by oil companies and, foreign nations. Lobbyists are required to register as such. Most think tanks and universities do not see themselves as lobbyists and do not register.

Industry, some foundation and even government-supported research grants sometime come with strings attached. Even if they didn’t, the results of paid research into complex issues are generally not conclusive and can be helpful in stimulating dialogue, if it’s matched by research initiatives funded by donors with different perceptions. Bad, or mediocre research funded by advocates, like speech, shouldn’t be countered by censorship, but by efforts to execute better research and by initiatives to provide to policymakers and the public with countervailing views and analysis to generate dialogue and debate.

I am not a purist. There is no chance in hell that the basic system of what I call advocacy grants and gifts now in existence will end. But public policymakers should insist on transparency as to funding sources and research methodology. Key advocacy studies likely to affect public sentiment and decision maker views concerning replacement fuels and gasoline should be granted, at least some form of even informal refereed reviews. If I could figure out an easy way to do it, I would define alternatives that would provide some reasonable equivalency concerning research funding. They would assure Americans that all key replacement fuel options are examined fully and are compared to gasoline. The research on replacement fuels should not be submerged by foreign nation or internal U.S. oil interest funding. But I don’t get paid enough nor am I smart enough to think this one through, at least until the next column. Maybe you can help me? Paraphrasing my favorite oil scholar, Socrates, unexamined studies funded without independent review, only by the oil industry or its Middle East friends and colleagues, are often not worth having or debating. Peace.