As The New York Times reports, the plummeting price of crude oil has brought disagreements among OPEC member nations about how to stop the slide. Iran has called for production cuts, which could push prices up, but Saudi Arabia has the most influence.
A story in The Detroit News poses a troubling potential downside to the global drop in oil prices: “… most of the new production [in the U.S., with help from the fracking revolution] only makes economic sense at high prices. That is, it’s expensive to get the oil out of the ground, so if prices fall too much, it will cost more to get it than it’s worth.” That reality could put jobs in peril.
There is a new documentary coming to a theater near you: PUMP. The film tells the story of America’s addiction to oil. Stories told range from Standard Oil’s illegal tactics to the dominance of oil companies. The goal of the film is to explain why and how consumers can end Big Oil’s monopoly and “win choice at the pump”.
In the US, ethanol production averaged 937,000 barrels per day for the week before last, or 39.35 million gallons daily, up 6,000 b/d from the week before.
Since 2009, oil prices have enjoyed a prolonged period of remarkable stability characterized by annualized volatility significantly below its long-term average. And though volatility has ticked up markedly in recent months due to the escalating conflicts in Russia and Iraq, oil prices haven’t risen much above $115 a barrel and have actually declined sharply in recent weeks.
PUMP the new documentary about America and oil to be released September 19th.
I learned from Art Laffer that government is the 800lb gorilla in the economy and that investors can profit from changes in government policies. But a practitioner has to accept the framework – that government policies drive incentives as much or more than any other single driver. The charts that follow should prove that out. They show how a proposed change to the RFS ethanol mandate drove corn prices down 30% almost instantaneously. Similarly, in 2008, oil prices plunged at the mere suggestion that a moratorium against drilling on the outer continental shelf (OCS) might end.
With the past decade showing various economic activities like government biofuel incentives, soaring oil prices, green and clean venture investments, Middle East turmoil, and emerging technologies, the green sentiment has now become a global concern for all. All such factors are contributing to the critical launch of the global biofuel market, once and forever.
The world’s oil prices have stayed high since 2010 — bouncing around $100 per barrel— for two basic reasons. Oil demand keeps rising, and production is struggling to keep up. But why is production struggling to keep up? One big factor has been geopolitical conflict. Wars, unrest, and sabotage have increasingly plagued oil producers like Iraq, Libya, and Syria since 2011. The US and EU sanctions on Iran’s oil industry have also removed a lot of oil from global markets.
“USA, USA, USA, USA.” No, I didn’t just come from watching the U.S. playing in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. But after reading the glowing, cheerleading, overly enthusiastic, often-nationalistic media accounts of the U.S. overtaking the Saudis in oil production, the win-lose aspects of the soccer chant somehow became embedded in my persona (like counting sheep or gas pumps at night when I can’t sleep). We beat the Saudis at their own game — oil. We’re number one…wow! Next, will we emulate the Saudis and place onerous and discriminatory restrictions on women drivers and, unlike the Saudis, argue that it’s a conservation measure? Of course not! We don’t have to be number one in everything. But oil does make strange bedfellows, and equally strange behavior, as well as policies.
Unfortunately, most of the media stories avoid analysis of what the new oil prominence of the U.S. means to the nation and world. Yes, increased production likely means less dependence on the Middle East, particularly Saudi oil. Indeed, we now import about 33% of oil needs, the lowest percentage in years.
But oil independence remains a myth. Oil interests are pushing for a reduction of regulations concerning exports of U.S. crude oil and have always exported considerable refined oil products allowed by the law. Their motives, despite frequent public comments to the contrary, are generally to sell to the price, which means to the buyer who offers the most return. He, she or it frequently is a global purchaser. Independence is a slogan that often blurs motive and reflects good politics but bad substance and contrary to reality.
The U.S., as the most powerful western nation, irrespective of any mathematical domestic surplus, will continue to extend its role as defender of the global supply chain from the Middle East or elsewhere. While we may be less dependent on foreign oil, U.S. leaders have, in the past, and likely will in the future, use a combination of diplomacy and military threats and action to defend and sustain the flow of foreign oil to allies or assumed allies. In this context, the role we play in the world extends our dependency. Unfortunately, wars will be fought and U.S. soldiers will die because of this felt dependency.
Most of the “USA, USA, USA” chants in the media coverage of our new oil prowess, implicitly neglects the difficult juxtaposition between increased oil production and supplies and higher gas prices. Less dependence hasn’t brought the reduction, or even stabilization, of gas prices promised by the oil industry. Gasoline in California is now generally well over $4 a gallon for regular, and averages over $3.60 a gallon across the nation. Why? We have a surplus, don’t we? Oil companies want to export more, and it appears that they will be able to do just that, soon. As Dr. Pangloss asked in “Candide,” is this the “best of all possible worlds” (let me add, for the U.S.)?
Clearly, the cost of oil at the pump is not strongly linked (at the present time) to the amount of U.S. oil that shows up on EIA calculations and projections. Both price and supply are going up simultaneously. Yes, there is uncertainty, given events in the Middle East and yes, uneven growth around the world has increased demand in some areas and suppressed it in others. The link between high prices and the Middle East is difficult to measure precisely. Consumer costs per gallon are likely affected more by investors, as well as speculation on Wall Street, than the actual numbers concerning increased production of U.S. oil.
So, apart from prayer and penitence, what can we do to get a better deal for consumers, and to prevent gasoline from becoming a negative factor concerning U.S. GDP growth and the environment? How can we help assure that being number one means robust economic growth, more income in the wallets of Americans (particularly low-income Americans), increased security and fewer dirty emissions?
These are not easy questions, and they do not lend themselves to simple ideological responses. Clearly, as renewable fuels and vehicles that meet the incomes and desires of most Americans become available, both will play a vital role in America’s future. But reliance on coal-fired utilities for power in some areas of the nation, battery costs, mileage limitations from single battery charges, and lack of infrastructure impede their ability to have a significant positive impact at the present. The market for renewable fuels and vehicles is relatively small and will remain so until technological advances catch up with potential demand.
Where is the Greek philosopher Diogenes when we need him? We have a path in front of us that would buy time toward a better American future, one that could offer competition to gasoline — competition that would be good for the economy, the consumer and the environment. Increased availability of replacement fuels, particularly natural gas-based ethanol, combined with large-scale conversion of older cars to flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) and increased production of new FFVs by Detroit, would give gasoline a run for the money, if gas-only stations become fuel stations and provide consumers with a choice. According to the Renewable Fuels Association, less than one percent of all gas stations in the U.S. that are branded by the big oil companies offer E15 or E85.
I remain an optimist that more freedom will reign soon at the pump. The noted people’s philosopher, Charles M. Schulz, creator of “Peanuts” comic strips, lessened my fears about the future when he said, “Stop worrying about the world ending today. It’s already tomorrow in Australia.” USA, USA, USA. Fuel choice, fuel choice, fuel choice!