Here at Fuel Freedom Foundation, we talk a lot about “fuel choice.” This is what we mean.
In our quest for energy independence, we’ve run across quite a few different terms with abbreviations. So many, in fact, sometimes it’s hard to keep track. That’s why we’ve decided to organize them all in one place. Read up, bookmark the page, and become an expert.
OPEC has cried wolf again, but there’s reason to believe that this time, the cartel is serious about constricting oil production. Which, of course, will send the price — and thus the price of gasoline — upward. And there’s nothing American drivers will be able to do about it.
And boy, are there a lot of fools.
The global oil trade is a “contrived market” not subject to the usual laws of supply and demand, and the United States has an “absolute requirement” to use alternatives if it hopes to wean itself off imported oil, former Shell Oil president John Hofmeister said during the keynote speech at the National Ethanol Conference. Read more
Congress just left town for recess. Should we feel relieved that it can do no (or at least minimal) harm while it’s out of town, or should we feel bad that it went on vacation without enacting several important bills or making a real dent in establishing the ground rules for a fair and effective budget for next year?
We live in the world’s second-largest democracy, and a democracy whose political leaders frequently claim that we are an exceptional people and nation. Yet, can we and they really look in the mirror and say we and they are exceptional, particularly with respect to Congressional behavior itself? One of the three institutional pillars of our democracy – Congress – is almost dysfunctional. Ideology often substitutes for intellect and thinking; the urging of lobbies replaces study and analysis; and shouting and name-calling replace debate and dialogue. What a model for an exceptional nation to provide other countries looking to the supposed nation on the shining hill and yearning for the democratic way!
In this context, I found myself laughing and crying simultaneously after reading a recent Bloomberg article, “Congress Looks Underground for Cash.” Unwilling to face the possibility of new taxes for legitimate programs aimed at speeding drug development and medical research or funding the nation’s infrastructure needs (or finding consensus on budget cuts), a number of House and Senate members have proposed to use the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for part of each program’s costs. Good objectives but bad policy!
Now, as you let the idea of using the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for domestic purposes, unrelated to oil and energy needs, sink in, remember, if you’re old enough, that the Reserve grew out of the Arab oil boycott in the early seventies. Its purpose, at the time, was to allow the nation to survive future supply shocks and to grant the U.S. a tool to withstand tension in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Maybe it’s time to look at and possibly amend the initial objectives of the Reserve. But for the safety and security of the U.S., this reevaluation should be done reasonably and rationally. The Strategic Petroleum Reserve shouldn’t become a grab bag to avoid hard budget choices.
Think of it in terms of numbers: The Reserve has close to 700 million barrels in it now. America uses about 19 million barrels every day and still is dependent on foreign oil for 25-30 percent of its oil consumption. Put another way, we have, in theory, around a five-month supply of oil if an international oil crisis emerges and imports are reduced to zero.
You might say that, because there are so many complex variables, this theory is likely never to be converted to practice. Really! Again, remember the five-month Arab oil boycott in 1973!
The U.S. might be able to negate major economic and consumer impacts for a longer period by relying on increased shale oil development. Oil companies could respond by producing more oil, assuming a significant decline in imports was telegraphed well before they occur. Well, before any foreign boycott, global prices for oil would have to move to much higher levels than they are now to stimulate new wells and production. Refining and distribution capacity would have to exist and result in increased efficiency as well as now-absent policy consensus concerning environmental issues among citizens and federal, state and local governments.
But magic probably won’t occur. Despite American ingenuity, past experience tells us there will be a time gap between positive market signals, if they exist, and positive oil-company responses. International oil prices – not patriotism – will govern behavior, and it is conceivable that U.S. production, minus export numbers, will not measure up to U.S. needs.
The proposed withdrawals by Congress are just under one-third of the reserves – not a trivial amount – and this is only for two programs! Gosh, why not include housing or early childhood education programs? What about agricultural initiatives? Maybe job training? I know a few college presidents who are pleading for more money to hire faculty or engage in research. I am surprised that no one thought of funding the Export-Import Bank through petroleum reserves. Remember Puff the Magic Dragon and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds?
Maintenance of the integrity of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve seems still important for security reasons – its original purpose. We may need the leverage and the strategic edge the reserve provides some day.
To assure its ability to withstand dependence on foreign oil, the nation should also be looking at options to supplement or complement the reserve. Vehicles in the United States now use nearly 45 percent of oil consumed in this nation every day.
What if, as the president has proposed, the nation begins to wean itself off oil and moves toward expanded use of ethanol as well as other alternative fuels, such as methanol, electricity, a range of biofuels and natural gas, when they are ready for prime time? Increased market share for alternative fuels would reduce reliance on or extend the efficacy of the Reserve, as well as the need for oil imports. It would help lessen the importance of oil as a critical defining element of U.S. Middle East foreign and defense (or offense) policies. In this context, it would also permit the nation to become a leader internationally with respect to curbing GHG emissions and other health- and environmental-related pollutants.
Paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw and Robert Kennedy, some people ask why and I say, “why not?”
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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/
Everyone 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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/
This is the embedded promise for most Americans in the recent article by David Gross, “Oil is Cratering. American Oil Production Isn’t.” His optimism concerning at least the near future of oil — while a bit stretched at times, and economically and environmentally as well as socially somewhat misplaced — serves at least as a temporary antidote to individuals and firms with strong links to the oil industry and some in the media who have played chicken with oil (or is it oy little?). But in a Marxian sense (bad economist, but useful quotes), Gross does not provide a worthy synthesis of what is now happening in the oil market place. Indeed, his was a thesis in search of an antithesis rather than synthesis. Finding a synthesis now is like Diogenes searching for truth in light of almost daily changes in data, analyses and predictions concerning the decline in oil and gas prices by so-called experts.
Gross’s gist is that “Signs of the oil bust abound….The price of West Texas Intermediate crude has fallen in half in the past six months. The search for oil, which fueled a gold-rush mentality in North Dakota and Texas, is abating.” Rigs have closed down, employment is down and oil drilling areas face economic uncertainty, but, despite signs of malaise, “a funny thing has happened during the bust. Oil production in America has been rising…In November, the U.S. produced 9.02 million barrels of oil per day, up by 14.5 percent from November 2013… Production in January 2015 rose to 9.2 million barrels per day. And even with WTI crude settling at a forecasted price of about $55 per barrel for the year, production for all of 2015 should come in at 9.3 million barrels per day — up 7.8 percent from 8.63 million barrels per day in 2014…The U.S., which accounts for just 10 percent of global production, is expected to supply 670,000 new barrels — 82 percent of the globe’s total growth.”
Somewhat contrary to his facts about rigs closing down, Gross indicates that America’s oil largesse results from “American exceptionalism.” Shout out loud! Amen! American oil companies are able to produce larger amounts, even when oil numbers suggest a market glut, because they play by new rules. They are nimble, they are quick, they jump easily over the oil candlestick. They rely on new technology (e.g., fracking), innovation and experimentation. They don’t have to worry about environmental or social costs. The result? They bring down the cost of production and operations, renegotiate contracts and lay off workers. “The efforts at continuous improvement combined with evasive action mean a lot more profitable activity can take place at these prices than previously thought.” The industry appears like a virtual manufacturing and distribution version of Walmart. It, according to Gross, apparently can turn a positive cash flow even if the price per barrel stays around where it has been….from close to $50 to $70 a barrel. Holy Rockefeller, Palin and Obama! Drill, baby, drill! Just, according to the President, be circumspect about where and how.
Not so fast, according to both Euan Mearns, writing for the Oil Drum, and A. Gary Shilling, writing for Bloomberg Oil, both on the same day as Gross.
Mearns’ and Shilling’s perspectives are darker, indeed, gloomy as to the short term future of the oil market. The titles of their pieces suggest the antithesis to Gross article: Oil Price Crash Update (Mearns) and Get Ready for $10 Oil (Shilling). “The collapse in U.S. shale oil drilling, that looks set to continue, must lead to U.S. oil production decline in the months ahead…It looks as though the U.S. shale oil industry is falling on its face. This will inevitably lead to a fall in U.S. production” Mearns evidently places much less value on the industry’s capacity to literally and strategically turn on the present oil market dime.
Shilling asks us to wait for his next article in Bloomberg for his synthesis of what’s likely to happen- sort of like the trailers in Fifty Shades of Grey, except his data is not enticing. His voice through words is just short of Paul Revere’s: price declines are coming! The economy is at risk! Men and women to the battlefields! “At about $50 a barrel, crude oil prices are down by more than half from their June 2014 peak at $107. They may fall more, perhaps even as low as $10 to $20.” Slow growth in the U.S., China and the euro zone, and negative growth in Japan, combined with conservation and an increase in vehicle gas mileage, places a limit on an increase in global demand. Simultaneously, output is climbing, thanks mostly to U.S. production and the Saudis’ refusal to lower production. Shilling’s scenario factors in the prediction from Daniel Yergin, a premier and expensive oil consultant, that the average cost of 80% of new U.S. shale oil production will be $50 to $69 a barrel. He notes, interestingly, that out of 2,222 oil fields surveyed worldwide, only 1.6% would have a negative cash flow at $40 per barrel. Further, and perhaps more significant, the “marginal cost of efficient U.S. shale oil producers is about $10 to $20 dollars a barrel in the Permian Basin in Texas and about the same for oil produced in the Persian Gulf. Like Gross, Shilling pays heed to American efficiency but suggests its part of a conundrum. “Sure, the drilling rig count is falling, but it’s the inefficient rigs that are being idled, not the [more efficient], horizontal rigs that are the backbone of the fracking industry.” Oil production will continue to go up, but at a slower rate. This fact, juxtaposed with continuing, relatively weak growth of global and U.S. demand, will continue to generate downward pressures on oil prices and gasoline.
Even a Marxist, who is a respected dialectician, would find it tough to make sense out of the current data, analyses and predictions. More important, if you wait just a bit, the numbers and analyses will change. Those whose intellectual courage fails them and who generally put their “expert” analyses out well after facts are created by the behavior of the stock market, oil companies, consumers and investors deserve short shrift. They are more recorders of events than honest analysts of possible futures — even though they get big bucks for often posturing and/or shouting on cable.
So what is the synthesis of the confused, if there is one? Oil could go down but it could also stabilize in price and start going up in fits and starts. Production is likely to continue growing but at a slower rate. Demand sufficient to move oil prices depends upon renewed and more vigorous GDP growth in Asia, the U.S. and Europe. Realize that very few analysts are willing to bet their paychecks on definitive economic predictions.
Saudi reserves will likely provide sufficient budget revenues to support its decision to avoid slowing down production and raising prices at least for a year or so (notice the “or so”). Market share has supplanted revenue as (at least today’s) Saudi and OPEC objectives. But how long Saudi beneficence lasts is anyone’s guess and, indeed, everyone is guessing. Deadbeat nations like Venezuela and Russia are in trouble. Their break-even point on costs of oil is high, given their reliance on oil revenues to balance domestic budgets and their use more often than not of aging technology and drilling equipment.
As the baffled King from “Anna and the King of Siam” said, concerning some very human policy-like issues, “It’s a puzzlement.” There are lots of theses and some antitheses, but no ready consensus synthesis. Many Talmudic what ifs? What is clear is that the dialectic is not really controlled or even very strongly influenced by the consumer. Put another way, the absence of alternative fuels at your friendly “gas” station grants participation in the dialectic primarily to monopolistic acting oil and their oil related industry and government colleagues. Try to get E85 or your battery charged at most gas stations. Answers to most of the “what ifs” around oil pricing and production, particularly for transportation, would be shaped more by you and I — consumers — if we could break the oil monopoly at the pump and select fuels of personal choice including an array of alternates now available. Liberty, equality and fraternity! Oh, those French.
The Washington Post has an interesting story about the impact of lower gas prices — meaning the overall price drop since June, taking into account the recent uptick — on consumers in Saudi Arabia. While the government might one day have to make a decision about lowering oil output, thus letting prices climb again, regular citizens aren’t noticing much difference. That’s because Saudis pay about 45 cents a gallon to fill up their vehicles, thanks to government subsidies.
In Saudi Arabia, the general response to the drop in global oil prices by half — from more than $100 a barrel six months ago to around $50 now — is a shrug. Remember all those $60 fill-ups at U.S. pumps when gas was running close to $4 a gallon over the past few years? While your wallet was getting hammered, Saudi Arabia’s was getting stuffed thick. The kingdom has more than $750 billion in cash reserves, which is more than enough to keep the lights on and stave off panic over oil markets.
Not only is the government not sweating the reduced price of oil, it’s continuing with an ambitious program of public works to benefit citizens.
the government could go seven or eight years without trimming back its plans, simply by using its massive reserves, which are equal to 100 percent of annual gross domestic product, to cover budget deficits. More likely … the government would monitor oil prices closely for about 18 months and rethink strategy if they did not rebound.
Saudi Arabia has prospered over the decades thanks, in part, to protection from the U.S., the world’s most prolific consumer of oil. According to this timeline on PBS’s “Frontline” program:
1940-45: Although Saudi Arabia officially maintained neutrality through most of the war, the U.S. began to court the kingdom as it realized the strategic importance of Saudi oil reserves. In 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt made Saudi Arabia eligible for Lend-Lease assistance by declaring the defense of Saudi Arabia of vital interest to the U.S. In 1945, King Abdel Aziz and President Roosevelt cemented the tacit oil-for-security relationship when they met aboard the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal.