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Amid talk of oil ‘collapse,’ prices are up 73 percent in 3 months

Media organizations and analysts who follow the oil industry have been playing their sad fiddles for companies that once posted jaw-dropping profits. Stories seldom focus on the global benefit that low oil (and gasoline prices) provide to consumers, who have enjoyed a $3 trillion “transfer of wealth” since oil was at $115 two summers ago.  Read more

Oil is cheap, so why is gasoline sky-high in some places?

Even with a surge the past two days, oil prices have been on the downward slide the past 14 months, dropping from about $115 a barrel to around $40. But that hasn’t translated to savings at the pump for all drivers.

In some areas of the United States, gas prices have remained stubbornly flat during the oil plunge, or have inexplicably risen. Fuel Freedom Policy Manager Gal Sitty has put together this informative graph that tracks the price of oil (an amalgam of Brent crude, the international benchmark, and West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. standard) compared with the average price of gasoline in three big states: California, New York and Ohio.

gas prices-guns

Experts have no shortage of explanations for these anomalies. They usually sound like this: Something-refineries-inaudible. Cue Charlie Brown’s teacher talking wah-wah speak.

It’s true that a unit at the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana, one of the largest refineries in the Midwest, is back online after breaking down Aug. 8. Media outlets report that gas prices in the region already have begun falling again, but they’re sure not doing so as quickly as they shot up. And it doesn’t explain that gentle slope of a line for New York above.

In California, where gas prices pushed toward $5 in July after a sudden, insufficiently explained shortage, prices remain high, purportedly owing to the Exxon Mobil refinery in Torrance still being below capacity six months after a fire. As Sue Carpenter, automotive writer at the Orange County Register, explains:

Crude oil typically accounts for just 46 percent of the cost of a gallon of gasoline, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration. Taxes account for 16 percent, 13 percent is marketing and distribution, and 25 percent is refining.

In California, though, crude oil is just 34 percent of the cost of a gallon of gas, and refining is 35 percent, according to the California Energy Commission.

Still, it’s curious that just as California motorists were getting hammered, oil refineries weren’t sharing the pain: Refineries in the state collected $1.61 per gallon in July, the highest since the state began keeping records in 1999.

It’s clear that there isn’t enough refinery capacity in the U.S. (Raise your hand if you’d like one built in your back yard. There are people in Whiting who still remember what happened there 70 years and a day ago.) But even if refinery disruptions are partially to blame, it’s only further evidence that we’re too beholden to a volatile global oil market, and we’re dependent on an aging, infrastructure for refining.

The only way to make the fuel pricing structure sustainably affordable is to introduce fuel choice so gasoline has to compete with cheaper, cleaner alternatives like ethanol and methanol.

Until that happens, wild price swings and supply disruptions will be the norm in America.

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Why aren’t we using methanol?

The more you look at the contemporary scene with gasoline and imported oil, the more you have to wonder why we’re not switching some of our fuel needs to methanol.

Look at what’s happening: Oil has become so plentiful that we’re reverting to the old situation of the 1950s, when the big concern among oil people was that some new discovery was going to be made in some far corner of the world and there would be a new “glut” that would cause the bottom to fall out of the market. It was during this era that we placed a 20 percent cap on our oil imports. The concern was that there was so much cheap oil in the world that the American oil industry would be decimated.

All that changed in 1970 when American production finally leveled off — right about the time geoscientist M. King Hubbert had predicted “Hubbert’s Peak” would occur. The import ban proved easy to circumvent, and before we knew, it we were importing 36 percent of our oil, most of it from the Persian Gulf. OPEC, first convened in Baghdad by Saddam Hussein in 1960, suddenly became more than a debating society and realized it had real market leverage. Instead of begging the oil companies for higher royalties, the OPEC nations suddenly realized they could raise their price and even withhold supplies. The era of the Energy Crisis had begun.

Congress did all the wrong things in responding. It extended President Nixon’s price controls on one commodity, oil, creating a domestic shortage — too much consumption, not enough production. We made up for this by importing more oil, in which the price controls didn’t apply. While President Carter mandated a “moral equivalent of war” and wore cardigan sweaters, the price controls had the exact opposite effect: Our imports swelled from 36 percent to 50 percent in 1980, and we were sitting ducks when the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War suddenly cut short supplies. The result was the Second Gas Shortage.

President Reagan put an end to all this by striking down the oil-price controls his first week in office. Drillers went wild in Texas, and the Saudis flooded the market in trying to maintain market share. Soon prices had collapsed back to 1972 levels, and the “oil shortage” was pretty much forgotten.

Meanwhile, similar developments were taking place in natural gas. This commodity had been subject to federal price controls since the 1930s. Basically, it was an attempt by the Northern consuming states to rob Texas and Louisiana of their natural resources. In 1977 we actually experienced a “natural gas shortage” that caused factories and schools all over the North to close down in mid-winter, while Texas and Louisiana were burning natural gas for electricity — then considered horribly wasteful — because the price controls did not apply intrastate. This “crisis” was solved more slowly as natural-gas price controls were not phased out until 1988. Once again, supplies gushed forth. (We did learn a lesson. Nobody has talked about price controls on oil and natural gas since.)

Even with the market freely operating, however, the natural supplies of both oil and natural gas seemed to be diminishing, so that by 2005 we were running short of gas and back to importing more than half our oil. Then George Mitchell’s fracking revolution began. Suddenly, America was the world’s leading producer and oil and gas were once again in abundance.

Yet as far as freeing ourselves from further dependence on foreign oil, the results have been disappointing. Even though we are again producing 10 million barrels of oil a day, we are still dependent on imports for 30 percent of our oil, about one-quarter of this from the Persian Gulf. Low prices have stimulated consumption. People are going back to buying bigger cars and our gasoline use is hitting new records. Sales of electric cars and other alternative vehicles have nearly collapsed. Whatever impulse there is toward conservation is highly dependent on price.

Anything that requires a new infrastructure — electric cars, hydrogen vehicles, compressed natural gas and propane — will have trouble getting beyond a niche market. It’s simply too troublesome and expensive to get people to convert. But corn ethanol and methanol both slot easily into our current system of gas pumps and can compete.

The trouble with corn ethanol is that we are rapidly exhausting the potential supplies. We now use 40 percent of the corn crop to replace 3 percent of our gasoline. Cellulosic ethanol may expand supplies, but it is still basically experimental.

That leaves one fuel that could potentially replace vast amounts of our imported oil — methanol made from natural gas. We have enough natural gas supplies from fracking to make this a game-changer.

The great irony is that China sees this opportunity and is already seizing it. The Chinese are busy constructing two huge methanol conversion plants in Texas and Louisiana in order to take advantage of the abundant supplies coming out of the region. The Chinese have a million methanol cars on the road and will be carrying these supplies back to China to power their growing transport sector.

Yet the EPA continues to refuse to allow methanol to be used in car engines, mainly because of the reputation earned as a poisonous “wood alcohol” during Prohibition.

As Anne Korin of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security once said: “I think methanol fares poorly in Washington precisely because it doesn’t need any subsidies or government assistance in making it economical. For that reason you have no big constituency behind it and no member of Congress crusading on its behalf.” The entire farm belt is working to support ethanol, but there is no “methanol state” or corresponding congressman working in its favor. For that reason it languishes.

For almost 50 years the Indianapolis 500 cars have run on methanol. Yet it is still forbidden in our commercial transport sector. Isn’t it time that somebody considered the general good and started crusading on behalf of methanol?

(Photo by Vivid Racing, posted to Flickr)

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Oil still a major source of revenue for terrorist groups

Oil prices continue to plummet, owing to an oversize inventory and the prospect of still more crude coming onto the market from Iran. But that doesn’t seem to have turned off the spigot of revenue flowing to extremist groups.

At one point last year, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) was believed to be raking in $3 million a day in black-market sales of oil the group pumped from territories in Syria and Iran it took over during a swift campaign. ISIS once controlled several Iraqi oil fields, but thanks to a counteroffensive involving U.S. airstrikes and an American-backed campaign by the Iraqi security forces, the group now has only one, according to Agence France-Presse.

But ISIS’s oil operations have only been scaled back, not thoroughly halted. According to a story in The New York Times this week, ISIS has transformed from a simply bloodthirsty terrorist group, the successor to al-Qaeda, into a fully functioning government. It has a complex economy that relies not just on stolen oil, but other revenue sources, including kidnapping, extortion and an assortment of taxes and levies.

That complexity is evident in the way ISIS pumps and transports oil: Based on a BBC2 program called “The World’s Richest Terror Army” that aired this spring, ISIS even sells the oil it gets from fields in eastern Syria back to the Syrian government, even though the group is a sworn enemy of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

ISIS sells some of its oil to the people it governs — some 8 million in the territory it controls — and smuggles more of it across the Turkish border. According to a story in U.K.’s Independent, around the time of the BBC special in April:

A Syrian source involved in oil smuggling for Isis explained how oil brought in one of the group’s biggest streams of revenue. “Isis controls the oil wells in our region of Deir Ezzor, which is rich in oil,” he said. “My family, friends and members of my tribe by oil from Isis and smuggle it to the refineries and then to civilian markets.” The US treasury estimates Isis is still earning $2 million a week by smuggling oil in spite of a sustained bombing campaign by the US-led coalition.

The documentary reveals that militants have developed ways of pumping oil hundreds of metres across the border and floating it in barrels down rivers in order to export it into areas not held by Isis.

ISIS is far from the only extremist group that finances its activities through oil, one way or another. According to the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, Saudi Arabia — a U.S. ally that also hates ISIS — is home to many financiers of global terrorism:

This Gulf monarchy is a … state in which no taxes are imposed on the population. Instead, Saudis have a religious tax, the zakat, requiring all Muslims to give at least 2.5 percent of their income to charities. Many of the charities are truly dedicated to good causes, but others merely serve as money laundering and terrorist financing apparatuses. While many Saudis contribute to those charities in good faith believing their money goes toward good causes, others know full well the terrorist purposes to which their money will be funneled.

Oil not only underwrites terrorism, it gives oil-exporting nations in the Persian Gulf an outsize influence on the world stage. The United States and other Western countries devote inordinate amounts of resources and attention to dealing with the Middle East and its many internecine struggles, at the expense of other parts of the world.

Also, the task of defending the flow of oil from the region routinely falls to the United States, and using less oil would absolve us of the need to send in troops and keep up military bases to protect supply routes.

“As long as we keep buying oil from the Middle East, our enemies can continue to fund terrorism,” oil and gas tycoon T. Boone Pickens wrote in TIME earlier this month. “For too long we have spent the lives and limbs of thousands of young men and women fighting in the Middle East, and we still bear most of the cost of protecting the about 17 million barrels that flow through the Strait of Hormuz every day even though only about 10% of that oil comes to us.”

Some say we can drill our way to oil independence, but the reality is, the U.S. still needs about 19 million barrels of oil a day to function, and the “shale revolution” only restored U.S. production to a peak of about 10 million barrels. The rest has to come from somewhere.

If the U.S. used more alternative fuels for vehicles, instead of primarily oil-based gasoline and diesel, we could reduce our dependence on oil — and shrink the influence of the countries that supply it.

To learn more about the connections between oil and terrorism, visit our National Security page.