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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.

What does Shakespeare have to do with California gas prices?

ExxonWilliam Shakespeare once said that there are “occasions and causes why and wherefore in all things” (Henry V). I would edit the Bard of Avon and add, except when trying to readily understand recent oil price increases in California.

Put two analysts in a room and ask about the cost of oil and you likely will get three or more answers. Many parents send their kids to college to study the hard economic sciences only to find out that their hopes and dreams are often dashed by ideology or weak methodology — sometimes both. Conservative economists argue it’s the fault of unnecessary environmental regulations and taxes. Liberals respond that high prices result from oil speculators and price management by oil companies. Non-ideologues merely respond with, “I don’t know,” and then give a lecture on probable causes, most times, without empirical data related to correlation or causation to back up their statements.

We now have lots of conflicting facts and observations without any real strategic comprehension of what both mean. For example, gasoline prices in California have increased relatively fast and by a large amount, while the cost of oil per barrel has stabilized or even decreased. Daily oil prices per barrel fluctuate, but the variations have been relatively small, and oil costs remain quite low.

The per-gallon price of gasoline in the state has surpassed $5 per gallon in a few stations and is well over $4 per gallon at many other stations. Consumers are dazed, depressed and angered by the severity and quickness of price increases. (Manic depression has likely set in, in light of recent exposure to the previously lower prices at the pump. The New York blackout generated more babies, and the gas crisis of 2015 will probably lead to more visits to psychiatrists.)

Guesstimates of the why and wherefore of price increases reflect more the skills of a carnival barker than that of a skilled economist. Step right up and name your selection of one or more factors leading to the significant and comparatively high gas price increase in California, compared with other states. California has earned the right to claim the title of most expensive regular gas in the nation. Maybe, like in the early ’60s, the Golden State can install an electronic sign celebrating its achievement on the Bay Bridge, in the “left my heart” city of San Francisco, as it did when its population surpassed New York’s. Of course, I am just kidding. It’s not a feat the state is proud about.

Forget the ideologues for a minute! What are respected observers saying about the whys and wherefores of the severe spike in prices in California?

Many journalists writing for newspapers (happily, we still have print!), in and out of California, grant causal status to increases in the state and federal gas taxes, now adding nearly 70 cents to the price of a gallon of gas. Approximately, 10 cents of the total in most stations reflects a new carbon tax on wholesalers.

Others suggest that frequent breakdowns and poor conditions of refineries, as well as recent fires at refineries in California, add up to production and inventory limits. These assertions make some sense, given the marginal room in existing refineries to build more capacity and production.

Some political leaders point to the fact that there are only a relatively small number of refineries in the state. Added to this fact, some say, is the almost oligopolistic control of refineries by two major oil companies. Did you know that Chevron and Tesoro together control nearly 60 percent of California’s refinery capacity? Some oil analysts say the percentage is much, much higher than that — up to 80-90 percent.

Clearly, there is a negative impact on prices generated by a lack of real competition. Significantly, many observers from in and out of the state have warned about the possibility of managed prices in light of the structure of the industry (and its secrecy). In a similar vein, investor speculation on oil has been raised as a variable leading to higher costs at the pump by Sen. Diane Feinstein and others. A few years ago, Sen. Feinstein sought hearings on possible skullduggery. Interestingly, despite assumed inventory shortages, refineries exported nearly 3.5 million gallons a day just before recent major gas-price increases. Gasoline is traded on a global market governed by profits and price disparities — not social welfare.

Coming around third and heading home! Both the costs associated with the state’s requirements to shift from one blend of fuel used in the winter to another in summer, combined with the apparent costs of California’s baseline environmental-blend requirements, are seen by some experts as factors generating higher gas costs and negligible imports from other states.

Blend and seasonal shift mandates normally do increase the costs of gasoline. They probably create extra costs, particularly when the inventory is short, as it is now.

California exports ideas, fashion and lots of other things. But generally, when shortages occur — real or not — the state must import gasoline. It is isolated from refineries in the U.S. and foreign refineries. California must rely on ships, trains and trucks to secure imported oil. No pipelines exist that move gas beyond the boundaries of the state or into the state. No swimmers are strong enough to carry oil on their backs. Pre-spike low prices and blend requirements appear to have muted the incentive to send gasoline to California among would-be exporters.

Surprisingly, there is no consensus-based factor analysis determining the various causes and their relative impact on the upward spike of gas prices. If I had to place a bet on the major causes, I would bet on the likelihood of managed prices and investor speculation, current limited statewide refining and pipeline capacity, and absence of storage capacity.

Are there antidotes to California’s problems? Maybe, but not one that can or will be available tomorrow! But they could be available relatively soon, with political courage and changes in consumer behavior and perceptions. Increased competition at the pump from alternative fuels, including ethanol, electric vehicles, natural gas and, perhaps in the near future, fuel-cell technology and a range of biofuels, would generate more stability and lower prices in the gas market. Public support for applied research into alternative fuels, particularly options that currently aren’t ready for prime market time, is also necessary. Congressional willingness to pass open-fuels legislation, converting gas stations to, in effect, fuel stations, would help.

The EPA’s willingness to lessen the expenses and speed up the process associated with certification of kits able to convert internal combustion engines to run on E85, and to test and increase the number and classes of potentially convertible flex-fuel vehicles, would create demand and supply. Detroit’s willingness to increase production of new flex-fuel vehicles would provide a real “fuel additive.”

William Shakespeare’s whys and wherefores could become a happening? If so, California Dreaming (The Mamas & the Papas) about lower fuel costs and environmentally friendly fuel could become a reality. Oh, and I just paid $4.33 for regular gas at my friendly gas station!

7 ways our oil addiction is hurting the economy

We spend billions of dollars every year on oil that could be spent on cleaner, cheaper, American-made fuels. The impact of this addiction can be seen throughout our economy in a cycle of job and money loss:

  1. AMERICAN JOBS: When oil prices fluctuate, all levels of the economy are affected. When businesses have to pay more to ship their products because of a spike in fuel prices, they have to cut those costs elsewhere, leading to job loss.
  2. RECESSIONS: Of the 11 recessions in the U.S. since World War II, 10 were preceded by an oil-price spike. By breaking our oil addiction and investing in fuel choice, we can break this cycle.
  3. RELIANCE ON IMPORTS: The U.S. imports about 40 percent of its oil, sending money abroad that could have helped our economy at home. Building up the domestic infrastructure of alternative fuels would spur economic activity, instead of siphoning away billions that flow overseas.
  4. HOUSING: High gas prices hit close to home. As gas prices rise, the value of homes farther away from big cities, according to economist Joe Cortright, begin to devalue as the cost of commuting rises.
  5. WALL STREET: In July 2008, the price of oil hit $147 a barrel, and two months later Wall Street followed suit. In one day, the DOW Jones Industrial Average fell 777 points, ushering in the financial crisis.
  6. FLUCTUATING PRICES:  When gas and oil costs go up, the cost of other products follows. Suddenly, consumers have to pay more for everyday goods that require gasoline or diesel to be shipped. And when we’re spending more on our everyday necessities, we’re spending less on other things we need — delaying big purchases.
  7. LIMITED CHOICES: With no other options (unless you’re driving a flex-fuel or an electric car), the fluctuation of gas prices leaves the average consumer a sitting duck — unable to pay the price, but unable to purchase any other fuel. That’s why bringing fuel choice to the pump is so important.

The U.S. is at the mercy of oil companies as prices fluctuate, impacting our economy, including day-to-day prices for consumers and the overall job market. It’s time to break this cycle of dependence by bringing fuel choice to the pump.

Join the movement: http://www.fuelfreedom.org/take-action/

Declare your independence from oil with Fuels 101

Fuel Freedom has something new this Fourth of July to help Americans declare their independence from oil and its monopoly on the U.S. transportation fuels market.

This week we launched Fuels 101, a set of tools you can use to learn about alternative fuels. The pages include:

  • Check Your Car. An interactive feature that allows you to determine whether your car, truck or SUV is a flex-fuel vehicle, and thus can run on any combination of gasoline and ethanol, up to E85 (85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline).
  • Fuel Types. A guide to the different transportation fuels, including ethanol and methanol. All facts, no myths.
  • Find a Fueling Station. We’re using the Alternative Fuels Data Center’s cool interactive map, which helps you find not only E85 stations, but CNG and others.

Consider Fuels 101 an introductory course in all the alternatives to fuel. Although they come from different sources (ethanol, for instance, can be made from a variety of starchy plants, not just corn) and are made in different ways, their commonality is that they burn cleaner than petroleum-based fuels, reducing toxic pollutants that befoul our air and water. Domestically produced fuels also create American jobs and strengthen our national security.

Give Fuels 101 a spin. Don’t worry, none of it will be on the final.

Fuels 101 is the kickstart to what we’re calling Fuel Freedom Month. Our goal is to raise awareness coast to coast about ways we can all help create a genuinely competitive fuels market for the first time in America.

To learn more about how you can help, visit our Take Action page. And while you’ve got some down time between barbecues and fireworks displays this weekend, watch our all-American documentary film, PUMP the Movie, starring Jason Bateman.

You can also get regular updates on social media by following Fuel Freedom’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. PUMP has cool content as well (it has an independent streak of its own), so check it out on Facebook and Twitter as well.

Happy Independence Day, America!

Related posts:

Time to declare independence from expensive oil
Fuel Freedom to Hannity: ‘We can bankrupt terrorism’

Shall we overcome? The negative impact of gas prices on jobs and housing choice

money-gas tank2Recently, the New York Times ran an editorial on “fair housing.” Its content portrayed a nation at risk concerning housing resegregation. According to the Times, minorities now face fewer choices when looking for housing in the suburbs because of the absence of strong, fair housing laws and the lack of enforcement of current laws on the books. For me, the Times’ story brought back memories of the stirring, hopeful and emotional civil rights-era anthem, “We shall overcome!” It also brought back my own experience as a tester, with respect to housing discrimination, and my later involvement in efforts to strengthen fair housing policy at the U.S. Department Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and training real estate salespersons and brokers to sell to minorities, while dean at the University of Colorado.

A bit of history: After WWII, discriminatory practices were often overt and blatant. Builders, brokers, bankers, homeowners and public officials found reasons and ways to impede housing sales to minorities and low-income households in mostly white areas in the growing American suburbs and urban sprawl surrounding American cities. Racist zoning, refusal to finance mortgages, refusal to show empty units or pre-construction empty lots were some of the key impediments to the American Dream for far too many minorities and, many times, low-income households. As a result, would-be black, Latino and low-income white homebuyers were denied the ability to recapture income from housing appreciation in growing areas.

Through appreciation, affluent and white families were able to pay for their kids’ college education through the purchase and resale of their homes — choices not open to many minority or lower-income white families. Limited housing choices restricted black, brown and sometimes low-income white families to older, deteriorating areas of American cities and the ghetto or barrio areas for minorities. Children of poor families — white, black or brown — were required to attend failing schools. Poor healthcare, higher costs for food and other basics, increased crime and inferior public transportation often tracked low-income, one-race communities. They made life difficult for residents and kids.

While racism in the housing market still exists, America has made progress. Minorities, particularly middle- and upper-income minorities, who can afford the price, have been able to increase their housing choices throughout most metropolitan areas. Laws on the books are aimed at eliminating discrimination and opening up housing choices for minorities.

But the nation still has a long way to go before it meets the goal of the 1949 bipartisan housing act to seek a “decent home and a suitable living environment” for every American family. Housing costs and income stagnation remain obstacles for low- and moderate-income families, irrespective of color. Add residual racism to the mix, and less than affluent minorities still have a very tough time entering the housing market. Very few scholars and practitioners have looked at gas costs as a barrier to housing choice and the American Dream. But they are barriers! Gas prices have become a serious variable limiting housing and neighborhood choices for the least advantaged — moneywise — among us, including a proportionally large share of minority households. Contrary to public perceptions, vehicle ownership is now readily available to most low- and moderate-income households, including minorities. Isabel Sawhill, a highly regarded policy analyst from The Brookings Institution, reported that in 2012, 80% of households with annual incomes below $50,000 owned vehicles. She noted that in 2010, when prices per gallon hovered at around $2.80 a gallon, low- and moderate-income households spent about $1,500 on fuel per year. Further, each dollar increase in gasoline (holding miles driven constant), would cost these households an extra $530 a year. According to many observers, increases in gas prices during 2014 constituted as much as 10-15% of the total income of low-income folks.

Sawhill and others suggest that low- and moderate-income households will adjust to higher costs of fuel by cutting back on other basics. To some extent, the inelasticity of price demand among the poor and the near-poor, concerning the purchase of gas, results in reduced expenditures for needed goods and services, including transportation. Higher gas prices limit the distance that low- and moderate-income households can, or are able to (in light of budget constraints), travel to secure jobs (or better jobs) and to access improved housing opportunities. Going back to Sawhill, “rising gas prices produce a level of hardship for a group that is already suffering from higher levels of unemployment and stagnant or declining real wages.” The cost of gas has and will remain a key civil right issue.

David Leonhardt et al. recently reported in The New York Times that data from a massive 100-city study indicates that children who grow up in some cities and towns have a greater chance to escape poverty than children who grow up in other cities. The ability of households to move from bad neighborhoods to better ones, from bad communities to better ones, makes a visible difference in the lives of their children and their children’s future income.
Household mobility is a key variable. The quality of neighborhood and community for low-income folks is important — very important-with regard to the quality of their lives and the lives of their children. Raj Chetty from Harvard, one of the authors of the study, suggests, “Every extra year of childhood spent in a better neighborhood seems to matter…”

Clearly, more analysis is needed to determine the precise relationship between mobility, locational change, race, education and family stability. Just as clearly, we now know that increased housing and job opportunities are critical to the ability of poorer households to improve their quality of life and environmental conditions. But the negative link between rising gasoline costs and mobility impedes the ability of low-income families and their children, whatever their skin color, to achieve their American Dreams. The link, if it remains, will test our nation’s willingness to expand and sustain housing and job opportunities for those other than the more affluent among us.

Oil companies and their franchisees are not practicing racism or income discrimination when they attempt to play with and set prices that limit competition at the pump. Indeed, most company leaders and franchise owners are color blind, except for the color green. Through monopolistic restrictions or economic Viagra and monogamous relations with franchisees, they try their best to limit consumer choices concerning alternative fuels and, as a result, generate higher costs for and profits from their favorite fuel — gasoline.

Cheaper fuels would provide lower- and moderate-income families with an increased ability to seek decent jobs and housing in decent neighborhoods and communities. Added to fair housing reform and enforcement, America could begin to overcome de facto housing segregation and extend job choice and job mobility. Breaking up oil monopolies at the pump, combined with initiation of competitive open fuel markets and increasing the numbers of FFVs should be part of the civil rights agenda in the 21st century. The result will be lower fuel prices and a quantum leap in opportunity for many disadvantaged Americans. Paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I have a dream”…and “we shall overcome!”

Hofmeister: Oil companies actually hate high prices

When it comes to oil companies and how they think, John Hofmeister knows of what he speaks. So when the former president of Shell Oil took to the lectern at the Hudson Institute’s “Fueling American Growth” conference in Washington, D.C., on Thursday and told the assembled that Big Oil actually doesn’t like high oil prices, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

And yet … let us gather that in: Companies like BP and ExxonMobil that post billions in earnings (or slightly less, as the price of oil slipped late in 2014 and into 2015) actually prefer a world in which a barrel of oil trades at a safe, predictable, boring price.

Here’s an excerpt from Hofmeister’s remarks:

Contrary to some popular belief, oil companies don’t actually like high oil prices. They like predictable, rational prices that deliver a return on investment over time. Companies do not like spiking, ever-higher prices, because of what happens as a consequence: The cure to high oil prices is high oil prices. People stop buying. Surpluses develop and prices collapse.

What’s the cure to low prices? Low prices. Because people stop producing and, sure enough, we run into shortages, and prices rise. This ever-continuing volatility is not good for the industry, it’s not good for national security, and it is horrific for the economy. And oil companies have been around for a long time. They see beyond the advantages of volatility either way, and look for those predictable price spots – they call them sweet spots, actually – where you can achieve an attractive investor return on investment, and you can maintain a stable workforce, and you can invest in R&D, and you can produce just enough energy to keep the nation well-supplied.

Hofmeister, who’s on the board of advisors with Fuel Freedom Foundation and is one of the stars of the foundation’s documentary, PUMP, has predicted that oil prices will continue to surge upward over the next year because U.S. drillers won’t be able to simply ramp up production quickly again after the recent downturn in prices forced many of them to suspend operations.

The foundation has argued that the best way to reduce oil consumption, end oil-market volatility and make prices gasoline permanently low for consumers is to open the transportation-fuel market to cheaper, cleaner alternatives like ethanol and methanol.

Hofmeister said: “We will never get past the volatility of oil until we get to alternatives to oil.”

The primary reason that I care so much about alternatives and future fuels is, as a person from the oil patch, I know the limitations. I know what’s possible and what’s not, and the appetite for oil worldwide will never, ever be satisfied from the oil patch. It can’t be. The risks, the costs, the geopolitics, really cannot begin to address the 2 billion people on this earth who really don’t have access to oil-based petroleum fuels, and most of them never will. There just isn’t enough.

You can watch the whole video clip here:


Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

The Saudis and oil prices — the diminishing value of conspiracy theories

saudi_1880139cEveryone likes hidden conspiracies, either fact or fiction. Covert conspiracies are the stuff of great and not-so-great novels. Whether true or false, when believed, they often cause tectonic policy shifts, wars, terrorism and ugly behavior by groups and individuals. They are part of being human and sometimes reflect the inhumanity of men and women toward their fellow human beings.

I have been following the recent media attention on conspiracies concerning oil, gasoline and Saudi Arabia. They are all over the place. If foolish consistency is the “hobgoblin of little minds” (Ralph Waldo Emerson), then the reporters and editorial writers are supportive stringers for inconsistency. Let me briefly summarize the thoughts and counter thoughts of some of the reported conspiracy theorists and practitioners:

  1. The Saudis are refusing to limit production and raise the price of oil because they want to severely weaken the economy of Iran. The tension between the two nations has increased and, to some extent, is now being framed both by real politics (concerning who’s going to carry the big stick in the region) and by sectarianism. Iran’s oil remains under sanction and the Saudis hope (and may even be working with Israel, at least in a back-office way) to keep it that way.
  2. No, you’re wrong. The Saudis are now after market penetration and are lowering the price of oil to impede U.S. development and production of oil from shale. Right now, they are not worrying so much about oil from Iran-given sanctions…but they probably will, if there is a nuclear deal between the West and Iran.
  3. You both are nuts. The Saudis and the U.S. government are working together to blunt Russian oil sales and its economy. The U.S. and Saudis can withstand low oil prices, but the Russians are, and will be, significantly hurt economically. If it hurts Iran so much, the better! But the Cold War is back and the reset is a failure.
  4. Everyone is missing the boat. The Saudis don’t really control prices or production to the extent that they did in the past. Neither does OPEC. Don’t look for conspiracies, except perhaps within the Kingdom itself. The most powerful members of the Saudi royal family understand that if they limit production to raise prices per barrel, it probably wouldn’t work in a major way. The U.S. has become a behemoth concerning oil from shale. If a nuclear deal goes through, Iran will have sanctions lessoned or removed relatively soon. Should the Russian and West reach some sort of cold peace in Ukraine, Russia will become a player again. When you add Canada, Iraq, Libya and the Gulf States to the mix, lower global demand, and increase the value of the dollar, you get an uncertain oil future. The Saudis, led by their new king, are buying time and casing out their oil future.

To me, the Saudi decisions and the subsequent OPEC decisions were muddled through. Yet, they appear reasonably rational. Saudi leaders feared rising prices and less oil production. Their opportunity costing, likely, went something like this: “If we raise prices, and reduce production, we will lose global market share and maybe, in the current market, even dollar or riyal value. Our production costs are relatively low, compared to shale development in the U.S. While costs may go higher in the future, particularly once drilling on flat desert land becomes more difficult in light of geology, we can make a profit at the present time, even at $30-40 a barrel. Conversely, we believe that for the time being, U.S. shale developers cannot make a profit going below $40-50. Maybe we are wrong, but if we are, our cost/profit equation is not wrong by much. By doing what we are doing, we will undercut American production. Sure, other exporting countries, including our allies in the Gulf will be hurt temporarily, but, in the long run, they and we will be better off. Further, restricting production and assumedly securing higher prices is not a compelling approach. It could cause political and social tension in the country. We rely on oil sales, cash flow and profit as well as reserves to, in effect, buy at least short-term civic peace from our citizens. Oil revenue helps support social services and basic infrastructure. We’ve got to keep it coming.”

The Kingdom understands that it can no longer control prices through production — influence, yes, but, with the rise of U.S. oil development, it cannot control production. Conspiracy theories or assumed practices don’t add much to the analysis of Saudi behavior concerning their cherished oil resources. Like a steamy novel, they fill our reading time, and sometimes lead to a rise in personal adrenaline. Often, at different moments, they define the bad guys vs. the good guys, or Taylor Swift vs. Madonna.

No single nation will probably have the power once held by OPEC and the Saudis. While human and institutional frailties and desires for wealth and power suggest there always will be conspiratorial practices aimed at influencing international prices of oil and international power relationships, their relevance and impact will diminish significantly. Their net effect will become apparent, mostly with respect to regional and local environments, like Yemen and ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Recently, I asked a Special Forces officer, “Why is the U.S. fighting in Iraq?” I expected him to recite the speeches of politicians — you know, the ones about democracy, freedom and a better life for the citizens of Iraq. But he articulated none of these. He said one word, “Oil”! All the rest is B.S. I think he was and remains mostly right. His answer might help us understand part of the reason for the strange alliance between the Saudis and U.S. military efforts in or near Yemen at the present time. Beyond religious hatred and regional power struggles, it might also help us comprehend at least part of the reasons for Iran’s support of the U.S.-led war against ISIS — a war that also involves other “democratic” friends of the U.S. such as the Saudis and the Gulf States.

The alliances involve bitter enemies. On the surface, they seem somewhat mystifying. Sure, complex sectarian and power issues are involved, and the enemies of my enemies can sometimes become, in these two cases, less than transparent friends. But you know, these two conflicts — Yemen and ISIS — I believe, also reflect the combatant’s interest in oil and keeping oil-shipping routes open.

President Obama has argued that we should use alternative energy sources to fuel America’s economy and he has stated that we need to wean the U.S. off of oil and gasoline. Doing both, if successful, would be good for the environment, and limit the need to send our military to protect oil lifelines. Similarly, opening up U.S. fuel markets to alternative fuels and competition would mute the U.S. military intervention gene, while curing us, to a large degree, of mistakenly granting conspiracy advocates much respectability. Oh, I forgot to indicate that the oil companies continue their secret meetings. Their agenda is to frustrate the evolution of open fuel markets and consumer choices concerning fuel at the pump. Back to the conspiracy drawing boards! Nothing is what it seems, is it?

 

Photo credit: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/finance/

Car buyers go shopping for better mileage

With the price of oil down from about $115 to $63 since last June, the impression has been created that the auto world is once again in the hands of the oil industry, and that the gasoline engine is here to stay.

But this week at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Conference, there was the distinct impression that alternatives to the gasoline engine are moving up so fast that within another five years we may see big changes. Bloomberg Business wrote that the result is “Future transport is likely to look a lot different than what the major oil companies are fueling now. Instead of biofuels such as ethanol and green diesel making the internal-combustion engine fit into a world with greenhouse gas limits, wholesale new solutions are coming fast.”

“Where we are is in an age of plenty,” Michael Liebreich, BNEF’s founder, told Bloomberg. “We have cheap oil, cheap gas, cheap renewables. You do have an abundance of supply in a way you haven’t had for decades. We also are in an age of competition.”

The biggest piece of news is that gasoline consumption has leveled off over the last decade and now is lower than it was in 2006. This is a remarkable development that no one knows quite how to explain. Part of it may be the lingering recession. Fleet mileage improvement has definitely made a difference, improving from 24.5 in 2001 to 31.6 today, a dramatic surge of 29 percent in 13 years. The Age of the Hummer is over, and people are being more selective in shopping for better mileage, even as the vehicles improve.

But Bloomberg Energy sees alternatively fueled vehicles also making headway in a way that is just becoming visible. Electric car sales have quintupled over the last four years, although they did start at a very low base. But battery prices are coming down as rapidly as solar-panel prices, which means that they soon will be in a range where the average American can afford them. Tesla’s 2017 debut of the Model 3, priced in the $35,000 range, is going to be a real turning point, if everything goes right.

Also coming along rapidly is the hydrogen car, which the Japanese auto industry has chosen as its alternative to gasoline. Toyota and Honda are just beginning to market their models in Japan, and BNEF anticipates there will be 4,200 on the road in Japan by 2018. But California is another big potential market, and sales are scheduled to begin there sometime late this year. The California Legislature has responded by expanding the Hydrogen Highway initiated by former government Arnold Schwarzenegger, making it easier for drivers to refuel.

Of course, all these predictions are taking place on a world scale, and there the progress may be even more rapid than in the United States. One thing Tesla discovered in its relatively abortive attempt to crack the Chinese market is that China already has a thriving electric-car industry. The cars, moreover, are not scaled-down versions of powerful sports cars but slow-moving vehicles that have been designed from the ground up.

In an article in Forbes last week, Jack Perkowski outlined what he called “China’s other electric vehicle industry:”

While the global automotive giants struggle to find a winning formula for electric vehicles, approximately 100 manufacturers in China have already identified a large potential market undiscovered by the traditional players. The common problems faced by EV automakers — high cost, driving range, and the availability of charging stations — are not issues for these manufacturers because their target customers are satisfied with low-speed and limited range EVs, as long as they provide affordable transportation. In 2014, 400,000 so-called ‘low-speed’ EVs were sold in China, compared to only 84,000 conventional all electric and hybrid electric vehicles.

To get a glimpse of the size of China’s potential market, consider this: China is already the world’s largest vehicle market, accounting for 25 percent of all vehicles manufactured globally. Yet there is only 1 vehicle per 10 people in China, whereas in the United States there are 8 for every 10 – more than one vehicle for every person of driving age. China also has another huge market for other electric vehicles. It has sold 90 million motorcycles and 120 million electric bicycles.

Estimates are that China now has a million such low-speed EVs on the road now and might reach 3 million by 2020. These cars can do about 48 miles per hour and are used for short runs around town in smaller cities, so range is not a problem. They are doing wonders for air pollution. Manufacture only began in 2006, and already some provincial governments are starting to write requirements that they be preferred to the older gasoline types.
Surprisingly, the only government entity that has been slow to embrace the low-speed EVs is the national government in Beijing. The Central Government has not counted these EVs is their official automotive statistics and is only now starting to write regulations on how crash-worthy they must be and on what roads they will be allowed to travel.

Perkowski concludes: “Low-speed EVs may not fit the stereotype of today’s modern passenger car, but in China, where incomes remain low for a large part of the country’s population, affordability often trumps those values held dear in more developed countries.”

Could China’s low-speed EVs find a market in the United States? It’s certainly possible. In any case, the anti-gasoline revolution may be coming in ways we did not anticipate.