Drill Baby Drill and Increase US Exports of Oil: A Conundrum

Over the last year or so, many in the media have commented on the Saudization of America. Readers and viewers have been told that drilling for tight oil will lead to reduced imports and energy “independence.” Luck, or perhaps because of good ole American ingenuity in developing fracking technology, America, the Saudization folks indicate, will no longer be tethered to Middle East petroleum. “Amen” said a chorus of readers and viewers to the “drill baby drill crowd” during recent previous Presidential elections. What good red-blooded American could be against accessing America’s apparent ample supply of oil from dense rock formations or shale? Another popular win for “manifest destiny,” particularly when promises are made by the oil industry and believed by consumers that we will soon be blessed with oil independence as well as stable and ultimately lower gas prices. Who could ask for anything more?

I do not want to get into the “drill baby drill” debate– at least at this juncture. Nor, for the purposes of this piece, do I want to dwell on the opportunities and yes the problems related to fracking.  What I do want to focus on is the impact of the so-called Saudization of America on consumer prices for gasoline.

Since for most of us, gas is an inelastic good and, although we express anger or dismay at its costs, we will pay the price. No doubt, you, your wife, or significant other must get gas to get to work, to shop, to take kids to school or play, to go to a doctor, and to vacation. For folks with low and moderate incomes, the costs of fuel often constrains the purchase of basic goods and services and even job choices and access to decent housing because of limited transportation budgets. Happily, Americans are getting some relief from recently sky rocketing fuel prices during this holiday season.

But think about it: Even at today’s “low” national average price of “only” about $3.25 (I paid $3.63 for regular gas this morning), the price remains relatively high. Further, the recent drop in prices probably had relatively little to do with increased production. More important in setting prices were likely lower demand, the continued slow growth of the U.S. economy, the reduction of tension in the Middle East, wall street banker and speculative behavior, monopolistic type conditions limiting consumer choices at the pump set by the oil industry as well as oil company decisions concerning market management. (It would be interesting if some independent qualified think tank or government agency undertook an in-depth factor analysis concerning variables affecting gas prices.)

Increased oil production and refinement in America likely will not have a major impact on price or price stability. Despite being produced here, oil is traded globally. Understandably and legitimately from their perspective, the behavior of producers, refiners and investors is not governed by patriotism or security interests but by return on investment (ROI). Their voices often seem bi polar. They argue for more drilling here to benefit U.S. consumers, but they often, less than transparently, translate drilling and new production into dollars stimulated by new exports or relaxation of export regulations into pleas for new drilling.

Clearly, a good share of the oil produced in the U.S. — unlike Las Vegas stories– will not stay in the U.S. It will be sold to other nations. While the oil export train (or in this case the boat) has not yet left the station, political pressure from the oil industry and its friends is beginning to generate a Washington buzz that current federal restrictions on oil exports, in place since the Arab Boycott, soon will be reduced significantly. When big oil speaks, many in Washington listen! Yet, right now production per year meets only about 50 percent of demand in the nation–

According to CNBC, “oil companies are securing licenses to export U.S. crude at the fastest rate since records began, as the shale boom leads to swelling supplies along the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. government granted 103 licenses to ship crude oil abroad in the latest fiscal year, up by more than half from the 66 approved in fiscal 2012 and the highest since at least 2006…”

Bloomberg News notes that the surge in U.S. oil production has made the nation the world’s largest fuel exporter. Exports to Brazil grew by almost 60 percent and Venezuelan imports from the U.S. grew by more than 55 percent; So much for the cold war between the U.S. and Venezuela.  As Bloomberg reports, U.S. exports of refined productions, such as gasoline and diesel, have reached new highs and increased by 130 percent since 2007.

Interestingly, Canada, despite the fact that it is the largest exporter of oil to the U. S. and has ample shale oil resources, has been the primary beneficiary of increased licenses for exports in the U.S.  Less expensive U.S. gulf oil crude is a good deal for Canadians, particularly from eastern Canada. It’s cheaper than the Canadian alternative.

So despite all the noise, we still have a long way to go before we reach oil independence, a truism in part because U.S. oil will soon constitute a relatively and historically a large share of the global oil market.

Clearly, a less exuberant goal than achieving oil independence would be reducing oil dependency. Advocates of alternative fuels like natural gas and natural gas based ethanol and methanol have a strong case. Do you remember when Ronald Reagan strongly urged Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin wall?  President Obama, paraphrasing Reagan, should urge oil companies to tear down the barriers to competition at the pump and allow in alternative, safe and environmentally sound alternative fuels. Unlike other Presidents before him, the President, courageously, has already asked the nation to wean itself off of oil.

Offering consumers more choices than gasoline at “gas” stations will help reduce and stabilize fuel prices for consumers.  A double win for the nation and its residents: reduced dependency and stable as well as lower costs– Happy New Year!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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