General: Dependence on oil a ‘serious’ national security threat

With gasoline prices at five-year lows, it’s easy to lose sight of the realities of U.S. dependence on oil. We’re still beholden to other nations for much of our supply; we still have to expend much energy and resources defending the free flow of oil around the world; and we still need the long-term solution of alternative fuels to keep prices low.

One person who’s done a lot of thinking about this is retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Ronald Keys, who lays out the argument for reducing our consumption of oil in a guest piece for The Hill. Keys, who spent 40 years in the Air Force (and flew combat missions in Vietnam), is now chairman of the Military Advisory Board at the CNA Corporation, a nonprofit military research group.

Keys writes:

Our nation’s over dependence on oil is a serious threat to our national security—militarily, diplomatically, and economically. It limits our ability to act on the world stage and increases the likelihood that we will send Americans in uniform into harm’s way. It leaves us open to impacts from wildly gyrating prices …


Importing less oil will loosen the bonds that tie us to regimes that don’t always have our nation’s best interests at heart. That will make it easier for the United States to act in its own national interest on the world stage, and make it less likely that we will have to send troops to defend the free flow of oil.


Oil prices will always fluctuate, but the need to cut our nation’s oil dependency will endure. This need doesn’t get any less urgent just because pump prices tick downwards for a while.

It’s not the oil we import that makes us vulnerable, it’s the price

The United States Energy Security Council has written a brilliant report explaining why neither increased production nor improved conservation will solve our oil problems or free us from dependence on world events.

The Council numbers 32 luminaries from across the political spectrum, including such diverse figures as former National Security Advisors Hon. Robert McFarlane and Hon. William P. Clark, former Secretary of State Hon. George P. Shultz, Gen. Wesley Clark, T. Boone Pickens and former Sen. Gary Hart. The study, “Fuel Choice for American Prosperity,” was published this month.

The report wades right in, pointing out that even though our domestic production has increased and imports are declining, we are still paying as much or more for imported oil than we did in the past. The report states, “Since 2003 United States domestic oil production has risen sharply to the point the International Energy Agency projects that the United States is well on the way to surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’s top oil producer by 2017. Additionally fuel efficiency of cars and truck is at an all-time high. As a result of these efforts, U.S. imports of petroleum and its products declined to under 36% of America’s consumption down from some 60% in 2005.”

Good news, right? Well, unfortunately not so fast. The report adds, “None of this has had any noticeable downward pressure on global oil prices. Over the past decade the price of crude quadrupled; the value of America’s foreign oil expenditures doubled and the share of oil imports in the overall trade deficit grew from one third to about 5%. Most importantly, the price of a gallon of regular gasoline has doubled. Despite the slowdown in demand, in 2012 American motorists paid more for fuel than in any other year before.”

How can it be that all this wonderful effort at improving production still has not made a dent in what Americans pay to fill up their cars? The problem, the study says, is that OPEC still has enough monopolistic market leverage to keep the price of oil where it wants. “While non-OPEC supply has been increasing and while the world economy is growing by leaps and bounds, OPEC, which holds some three quarters of the world’s economically recoverable oil reserves and has the lowest per barrel discovery and lifting costs in the world, has failed to increase its production capacity on par with the rise in global demand. Over the past four decades, world GDP grew fourteen-fold; the number of cars quadrupled,; global crude consumption doubled. Yet OPEC today produces about 30 million barrels of oil a day (MBD) – the same as it produced forty years ago.”

This means that even though we’re doing very well in ramping up supply and reducing demand, the overall distribution of reserves around the world still weighs so heavily against us that we’re basically spinning our wheels as far as what we pay for oil is concerned. The Council sums it up succinctly: “What the U.S. imports from the Persian Gulf is the price of oil much more so than the black liquid itself.”

So, what can we do? The Council says we have to change our thinking and come up with an altogether new approach: “If we are to achieve true energy security and insulate ourselves from countries that whether by design or by inertia effectively use oil as a economic weapon against us and our allies, America must adopt a new paradigm – one that places oil in competition with other energy commodities in the sector from which its strategic importance stems: the transportation fuel market.”

In other words, quite simply, we have to find something else to run our cars. “Although this may appear to be a daunting task, our country — and the globe — is abundant in energy resources that are cost-competitive with petroleum.”

In fact, there are numerous alternatives available. We have natural gas that can be used in a variety of ways, we have biofuels and we have electricity; all of which exist in abundant supply. What prevents us from using many of these alternatives is a regulatory regime and political inertia that prevents them from being employed. “Cutting into oil’s transportation fuel dominance has only been a peripheral political objective over the past forty years with inconsistent support or anemic funding from one Administration to the next. Competing technologies and fuels to the internal combustion engine and to gasoline and diesel have often been viewed as political pet projects by the opposing party. . . . What we must do is relatively simple: level the playing field and end the decades-old regulatory advantage that petroleum fuels have enjoyed in the transportation fuel market. By pursuing a free market-oriented policy that has as its primary objective a competitive market in which fuels made from various energy commodities can be arbitraged against petroleum fuels, the United States can lead the world in placing the best price damper of them all – competition – on oil.”

The Council is particularly critical of the “multiplier” system that has allowed the Environmental Protection Agency to become the arbiter of which alternative vehicles win favorable regulatory approval. The Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards have now been set so high — 54.5 mpg by 2025 — that no one realistically expects them to be achieved. But automakers can win “multipliers” by manufacturing alternative-fuel vehicles that are counted as more than one car, thus lowering the fleet average. The value of this multiplier, however, is determined solely by the EPA.

But as the study points out, the EPA has a conflicting mandate. On the one hand, it is supposed to be cutting gasoline consumption but on the other it is concerned with cutting pollution and carbon emissions. (Just why the EPA and not the Department of Energy is administering the CAFE program is a question worth asking.) So the EPA tends to favor cars that do not necessarily improve energy consumption, but cut emissions. Thus, it awards a two times multiplier to electric vehicles and fuel cell cars by only 1.3 times for plug-in hybrids and compressed natural gas. Meanwhile, flex-fuel vehicles, which could do most for reducing oil consumption, get no multiplier at all.

The Energy Security Council has many other good recommendations to make as well. I’ll deal with them at length in a later column. But for now, the takeaway is this: Greater production and improved efficiency will only get us so far. The real key to lowering gas prices and freeing ourselves from foreign dependence is to develop alternatives to the gasoline-powered engine.

Model building, Playboy and the impact of ethanol on gasoline prices

I recently read a number of provocative articles (or their summaries) by MIT’s Christopher Knittel and Aaron Smith. They faulted a pair of respected researchers from Iowa State University, Dermot Hayes and Ziaodong Du, in somewhat harsh tones. According to Knittel, the Iowa State pair, in their ethanol-related studies over a three year period (from 2009 through 2012), exaggerated the impact of ethanol on gas prices using relatively low present day ethanol blends.

I thought I was reading the script for a new urban crime show about drugs. Knittel, frequently, used terms like crack ratio and crack spread, ostensibly to note the weak link, found by Hayes at Iowa State, between the prices of ethanol and oil and both to gas costs at the pump. According to the authors, the price of gasoline is not substantially affected by the crack ratio; that is, the relative value of gasoline compared to oil or the price of gasoline divided by the price of oil and the current volume of its ethanol content.

Knittel’s papers angered Hayes, of the Iowa study. He claimed that, over time, the crack ratio and crack spread reflected a pretty strong causal relationship to gas prices. Language in his response to Knittel’s critique reminded me of those wonderful days when I was a dean, listening to different faculty, sometimes personally and sometimes based on methodology, criticize other faculty based on differing research results. The search for academic truth is often a noble road, but paraphrasing Robert Frost, a “road less traveled” — a road often full of human frailty and intellectual potholes.

Despite their critique of each other, both Knittel and Hayes’ studies are important and both, when read in context, should help one better understand the role of ethanol in affecting the cost of gas at the pump. Knittel is more right than wrong when he indicates that the crack ratio and spread does not fully explain the effect of ethanol on gas and oil prices, over time, and he is also correct in challenging the model used by Hayes to identify a reduction of $0.89 to $1.09 on gas prices because of higher ethanol production and higher crude oil prices.

Hypothetically, in isolation from other variables, the higher the crack ratio, the higher the price of gasoline. Further, if the price of ethanol is relatively low or on a downward trend, increased use of ethanol in gasoline blends, in theory, would cause the crack ratio to go down and the spreads to be higher, assuming gas prices remain the same or increase. Good news for consumers! Right? Maybe? Not always? Not at all? Not sure? What if?

I cannot claim real modeling expertise and would not, even for a minute, arbitrate between Knittel and Hayes concerning their use of models and its result — in terms of Hayes, significant impact of ethanol, in terms of Knittel, minor impact of ethanol.

But in terms of the policy argument between them, I suspect Knittel comes out the winner (full disclosure: I did graduate from MIT and while I love Iowa’s rolling hills, I do not like the climate and the fact that the state does not have a great symphony, nor a NFL football or American League baseball team). He points out that the crack ratio’s fluctuations in the ‘80s occurred when oil prices both declined and increased. Ethanol was not a factor and the movements in the crack ratio were not based on ethanol production. He seemingly, correctly, faults the folks in Iowa for not using the crack spread model in their 2011 and 2012 papers to evaluate the impact of eliminating ethanol because the two models —crack ratio which they used and crack spread which they didn’t — produce significantly different results and policy implications.

What does the dispute over models and model use have to do with public policy? A lot! The ethanol supporters touted the Iowa studies to support their claim that increased ethanol use reduces costs to consumers in a major way. Conversely, the ethanol critics suggest that the Knittel analysis debunks the assertion that use of ethanol as a blend will reduce gas prices in a major way.

Knittel suggests the Iowa studies vastly overstate the cost-related benefits of ethanol to the consumer and that Iowa’s model disregards or blurs the effect of price changes and swings in price of both ethanol and oil. Knittel also indicates that that the relationships between oil and gas prices, as well as oil, gas and ethanol prices are much less precise and more complicated than indicated by Hayes’ modeling efforts. Prices of all three fuels are much more subject to behavior and external events than acknowledged by either Knittel or Hayes.

The dialogue between Knittel and Hayes is helpful in sorting cost and price issues regarding ethanol and gasoline. I hope they continue at it, with less emotion, and with analyses better grounded in methodological analyses that generate a better job of linking model building with experience and empiricism. Meanwhile, no matter whether you believe the effect of ethanol on gas prices is high, moderate or low, if the U.S. government acquiesces in the use of higher ethanol blends like E60 and E85, and if the cost spread between ethanol and gasoline continues, an increasingly visible positive impact on fuel prices will likely be witnessed at the pump. Apart from any possible price differential related to use of higher blends, increased use of ethanol as an alternative transitional transportation fuel is in the public interest. According to most reputable studies, such use will respond well to many environmental problems caused by gasoline and it will help reduce America’s need to import oil…a continuing security problem.

Epilogue: I once taught a reasonably popular class on policy development and models. To liven up the class, I told the students that economic and policy models are abstractions of reality and to the extent that the models’ abstractions helps students understand reality, they are “good” models. They asked for examples. It was a late evening and I was tired. I told them to go look at the centerpieces in Playboy and Playgirl. Both presented models of airbrushed men and woman. At our next class, I asked the students if the models increased their understanding of men and women. They were bright and eager students, at least for this assignment, and they indicated, “No.” The models tilted too far toward abstractions and too far away from real world experience. They seemed to learn a lesson about the value of at least some models.