The U.S. interest in going to war or supporting war efforts on behalf of our “democratic” allies like Iraq, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia is not based, as said by some political leaders, on converting those countries to democracies or providing their citizens with increased freedom. Neither is it, primarily, aimed at reducing terrorism possibilities here at home. For the most part, it is instead aimed at protecting the U.S. and our allies’ interests in oil and stability in some of the most corrupt, autocratic oil-producing states in the Middle East.
Surely, recent history indicates that use of patriotic and compassionate language reflecting America’s historical ethos to justify our actions often wins initial public support for “Operation This” or “Operation That,” but as conflicts drag on and U.S. soldiers, sailors or marines suffer physical and emotional wounds, the gap between articulated justifications and reality becomes clearer to the public. When the fog of war or near-wars lifts a bit, support for U.S. military activity, often becomes muted among the citizenry.
Concern for protecting oil resources, production and distribution has been, and is currently, a paramount objective of the U.S. The U.S. and its allies have helped overturn governments, remake global maps, redefine national or tribal borders, create new nation states and abandon old ones and dispatch national leaders. Contrary to Gen. Powell’s admonition, we sometimes have failed to own the disastrous results of the wars that we have fought (Libya, Iraq, etc.). Based on our own desire for oil, we have tolerated sometimes exotic and many times terrible behavior among private oligarchs and despotic rulers, which, regrettably, often, escapes coverage in text books and in the media. Clearly, the link between our large-scale addiction to oil and its negative political, social and economic consequences in several Middle Eastern countries lacks sustained attention in our public policy dialogue.
The importance of oil and the U.S. willingness to go to war or engage in covert activities to protect it has been intensified by the relationship between petrodollars and the U.S. economy. Since 1944 at The Bretton Woods Conference, the global reserve currency has been the good old U.S. dollar. First, gold was the back-up to the dollar. As reported by the Huffington Post, the dollar was pegged at $35 to an ounce of gold and was freely exchangeable. “But by 1971, convertibility of gold was no longer viable as America’s gold resources had drained away. Instead, the dollar became a pure fiat currency (decoupled from any physical store of value) until the petrodollar agreement was concluded by President Nixon in 1973. The essence of the deal was that the U.S. would agree to military sales and defense of Saudi Arabia in return for all oil trade being denominated in U.S. dollars.” We as a nation committed to go to war in return for ostensible economic benefits and access to oil.
Was it good for the American economy? Sure, at least in the short run. The dollar became the only currency for energy trading. All foreign governments desiring to secure and trade for oil had to hold U.S. currency. The dollar was easily converted into barrels of oil. As the Huffington Post indicated, the dollar costs for oil flowed back into the U.S. financial system. What a deal!
Recently, lower U.S. interest rates, a troubled, slow-growing U.S. economy and the rise of oil-shale production in the U.S. has muted the almost-absolute, four-decade direct relationship between the dollar, and other nations’ need for oil and or export of oil. Instead of “next year in Jerusalem,” some nations like China, Russia and even France and Germany have indicated next year either a return to gold or the use of their own currencies as a peg to trading. However, the petrodollar still plays an important role in the exchange of oil in the global trading system. Its demise, as Mark Twain suggested about reports of his death, is, if not greatly, (at least) somewhat exaggerated. I suspect the petrodollar will be with us for some time.
Our nation’s willingness to militarize support of countries that depart radically from supposed U.S. norms of global behavior (encoded in the U.N Charter and other international agreements), because of their oil resources and the post-World War II emergence of dollar-based trading in oil and its benefits, has muddled U.S. foreign policy. Critics have questioned our not-so benign initiatives in countries throughout the Middle East and, as a result, they have raised issues concerning supposed American exceptionalism.
We have more than just a Hobson choice (that is, there is no real choice at all) if we choose to break from oil dependency. Increased U.S. oil production to secure profits and reach demand will still require both importing and exporting oil. This fact, coupled with the desire to keep the dollar the key oil-trading denomination, will sustain U.S. entanglements and the probability that we will continue to play oil policemen in many places.
A different future could be achieved if we took the president seriously and tried to “wean” ourselves off of oil. Paraphrasing liberally and adding my own meaning, Léon Blum, former French leader, “Life doesn’t give itself to one [nation] who tries to keep all of its advantages at once…morality may consist solely in the courage of making a choice [between energy sources and fuels].” The U.S. has not had the political guts yet to really focus on converting from an oil- and gas-based economy and social structure to an alternative energy and fuel-based one (e.g., natural gas, ethanol, methanol, biofuels, electricity and hydro fuels). Such a strategy would allow consumers greater freedom at the pump. It would be fuel agnostic and let consumers pick winners and losers based on cost, and impact on the quality of their lives and the nation’s life. We know that if we do make alternative energy and fuel choices now, based on equity, efficiency, GHG emissions and pollution reduction criteria, we can secure important environmental, economic, social and security benefits. To fail to act is an act itself, one that will harm the nation’s efforts to become the country on the shining hill and pave the way for other countries and itself to access a better, more peaceful future for present children and their children.
Photo Credit: www.defense.gov
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.
Nobel-Prize winning economist, Dr. Robert Shiller, is one of the top economists in the nation, actually, let’s make him an imperialist, in the world. He is best known, perhaps, as the co-creator of the S&P/Case Shiller Home Price Indices. His books on economic theory and issues populate many college classrooms and personal libraries, including mine. He is an impressive, smart and accomplished intellectual giant.
It’s tough, given Dr. Shiller’s pedigree, to even suggest a bit of criticism. But because I think it’s important to current policy debates concerning economic, energy and transportation fuel policies, I do want to take issue with his recent short piece in Project Syndicate (What Good Are Economists?). In it, he defends economists and their mistakes concerning economic forecasts.
Shiller seems oversensitive to the pervasive criticism of economists in the media and literature. Because of the esteem with which he deservedly is held, his somewhat-thin response may mute a needed dialogue concerning the weaknesses attributed by respected critics of the work of economists. Shiller admits they failed to warn the nation in advance of economic downturns as far back as 1920-1921. By implication, he also suggests that because of this fact economists did not have a major impact or may have even had a negative impact at the policy table and often gave up their places to business and political leaders. Certainly Dr. Lawrence Summers and Alan Greenspan have not escaped criticism for failing to predict both the recent recession and for instituting policies that may have exacerbated the recession itself.
Over the past several years, many Americans have been frustrated by the errors of omission and commission made by respected economists from America’s think tanks and its government institutions, like the EIA, concerning analyses, forecasts and predications of the price of oil and gas as well as, demand for and supply of fuel and the role alternative fuels have and will play in America’s future economy. Their numbers and analyses often seem like the “once a day” or maybe “once a month” variety. Many of you don’t remember the famous (now clearly seen as a sexist) joke by I believe Ilka Chase in the old Reader’s Digest that a “woman’s mind is cleaner than a man’s because she changes it so often.” The comment now fits many energy-related economists. Their minds may be cleaner than those of normal folks because, as seen in many of their energy and fuel forecasts, they change it so often. But by doing so, they present obstacles to government, congressional leaders, industry, academic and environmental officials anxious to develop sound energy and fuel policies and program initiatives.
Can you name — on more than one hand — the economists who predicted the recent significant decline of oil and gasoline prices? Can you find consensus among economists concerning oil and fuel prices in the future? Can you identify economists willing to go out on a limb and describe, other than in generalities, the causes of the current decline in prices? Put two economists in a room and you will get three or more different reasons, most resting on opinion and not on hard data. Paraphrasing, oh, yes, the reason(s) are (or is): the Saudi Kingdom and its unwillingness to limit production and desires to gain market share; another favorite: the American producer’s recent oil shale largess is too good to pass up by slowing down drilling significantly; and don’t forget: the rise of the value of the dollar and the fall off in travel mileages resulting from the global recession. For the politically susceptible and sometimes cynical economists, throw in the genius of American and Saudi foreign policy as a factor. They fail to sleep at night, believing the decline is the purposeful result of the State Department and/or their counterparts in the Kingdom. If you keep prices low, who does it hurt most…Russia, Iran and Venezuela, of course!
There are many theories concerning recent price declines but no real hard answers based on empirical evidence and factor analysis.
Energy and transportation fuel economists, at times, seem to practice art rather than science. Diverse methodologies used to forecast oil and gasoline prices; demand and supply are unable to easily manage or accommodate the likely involved complex economic, technical, geopolitical and behavioral factors. As a result, specific cause and effect relationships among and between independent and dependent variables concerning oil and gas trends are difficult to discern by expert and lay folks alike.
Understandably, American leaders often appear to value what they feel are the good artists among economists, particularly if they lend credence in their speeches and reports to their own views or ideological predilections. Shiller’s question about economists in his piece is not a difficult one to answer. He asks, “If they were unable to foresee something (the 2007-2009 financial crisis and recession) so important to people’s wellbeing, what good are they?”
The best in the profession have provided insights into the economy and what makes it tick or not tick. They, at times, have increased public understanding of corrective public and private-sector actions to right a weak economy. They, again at times, have helped lead to at least temporary consensus concerning options related to fiscal and monetary policy changes and the need for regulations of private sector activities. But Dr. Shiller goes too far when he offers a mea culpa for the profession by comparing its failure to predict economic trends to doctors who fail to predict disease. Doctors probably do suffer more than economists for their mistakes, particularly when their analyses result in increased rates of morbidity and mortality. At least economists can bury their errors in next week’s or next month’s studies or reports; many times doctors can escape their errors only by burying their patients. The article could have been a provocative and an important one, given Dr. Shiller’s justifiable stature. It might have stimulated self examination among some of the best and brightest if it had linked weaknesses in economic forecasts to proposals to strengthen the rigor of methodological approaches. Presently, the brief article regrettably reads as an excuse for professional deficiencies. Res ipsa loquitur.
R. James Woolsey, the former director of Central Intelligence and a current member of the Fuel Freedom board of advisors, went on the Jacki Daily show recently and had some interesting observations about the global sell-off in the oil market.
He said the price drop has been particularly hard on oil-exporting nations that need a high price to balance their budgets and meet generous public benefits. “Russia really needs oil up around $120 a barrel in order for its society to function,” he said.
He said nations like Russia should diversify their economies so they aren’t as reliant on oil prices for a thriving economy. “Russians don’t make anything. When was the last time you were in a store and you bought something that says ‘Made in Russia’? I guarantee you it doesn’t exist.”
Despite low prices, many experts predict that the global demand for oil will resume its upward trajectory, making fuel diversification essential, Woolsey said.
“Let the alcohol, the methanol producers particularly, and the gasoline producers and the natural gas producers, biodiesel producers … let everybody play.”
Woolsey, who served as CIA director under President Clinton, also is a member of the U.S. Energy Security Council. You can read this story quoting him about the vulnerability of the U.S. power grid in Forbes.
The Washington Post has a story about what falling oil prices has achieved for President Obama’s foreign-policy goals:
The precipitous fall in oil prices, which is hammering countries heavily dependent upon oil exports, could prod Russia into abiding by a ceasefire in Ukraine, make Iran more pliable in talks over its nuclear program, undercut Venezuela’s influence in the Caribbean, and weaken the finances of the Islamic State.
There’s another side to the coin, however:
… other parts of Obama’s foreign policy agenda could become more difficult, including efforts to open up Mexico’s oil industry to foreign companies, promote oil-fueled development in poor nations in Africa, and reduce global fossil fuel use to limit climate change. Brazil, already grappling with a corruption scandal linked to its state-owned oil company, is now uncertain about long-anticipated revenues from ultra-deepwater oil prospects.
The plunge in oil — and the subsequent hit to Russia’s economy — has achieved what sanctions could not: Humble Russia, which is “suddenly finds itself fighting a rear guard action on its own economy.”
But some analysts worry that the Obama administration hasn’t considered all the consequences.
“The ruble is in real trouble, the Russian economy is in real trouble,” said Bruce Jones, deputy director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution. But, he adds, “do we understand what happens if we really break the back of the Russian economy? I’m not sure we’ve thought that through.”
Wow. Over the last few days, the nation has seen the possibilities inherent in a transportation-related energy and environmental policy. No, Washington has not become more functional. It’s still a mess! Happily, Congress is out! (They weren’t doing much.) While they’re still being paid, we can at least turn down the thermostat in both the Senate and House Chambers. No new holidays have been created, and no new articles are being put in the Quarterly that cater to requests from constituents. Leaving town is consistent with one part of the Hippocratic Oath that guides doctors and at least vacations for congressman and women … do no harm!
The light in the energy-policy tunnel, or the canary in the policy mineshaft, results from the seeming collapse of the oil market. The price of Brent crude oil has fallen more than 20 percent since June, and on Friday it rose a little to $86.16 a barrel. The four-month drop in oil prices, caused mostly by an oil glut, falling demand and speculation related to both, likely will continue the recent trend toward lower gas prices at the pump, at least for the next few months. The U.S. average is now near $3.16 a gallon, reflecting a drop of about 15 percent since early summer.
The unseen hand of the marketplace — in this case, the actually relatively transparent hand of the marketplace — may provide a substitute for Congressional inaction concerning the presently complicated and sometimes weak policies that ostensibly protect sensitive global and U.S. land and water from harm. At $82 a barrel, oil producers and their investor colleagues have little incentive to invest heavily in tight shale oil. It just costs too much to get to and take out of the ground (or water). If the negative “opportunity costing” concerning decisions about future exploration and rig development become tougher, folks concerned with the environmental well-being of the Arctic Circle and the Monterrey Shale, etc. may end up smiling. They will see less drilling, fewer rigs, less GHG emissions and less non-GHG pollutants!
Apart from environmental benefits, falling oil prices will cause not-so-friendly and even sometimes-friendly Middle East nations to make difficult choices. They are reflected in the current dialogue within OPEC. Should OPEC and its member states sanction the production of more oil and contribute to the global surplus or lessen oil production targets to secure higher prices?
Both decisions, once made, have high risks. Raising prices by lowering production could lead to less market share and ultimately less revenue. Keeping prices low (and lower if the surplus continues to grow and demand continues to fall) could also mean less revenue and an earlier arrival of the time when production costs are near to, or exceed, returns for hard-to-get-at oil. Some Middle Eastern nations may not have a choice. Easy-to-drill oil is becoming increasingly hard to find, even in the once-productive oil-rich desert, and production costs are increasing, as they are around the world. It will be difficult to keep prices low. Yet if countries raise prices, they lose market share. Perhaps another compelling fact of life that Middle Eastern nations must look at is the increase in domestic needs brought about by the Arab Spring and the yearning for a better life among their citizens. Indeed, in this context, both lower prices and higher prices may limit their competitive abilities and result in declining revenue for national budgets. It will present them with a conundrum. Translated into political realities, countries in the Middle East may have less to spend on social welfare programs, exacerbating tension that already exists in the Middle East.
Low prices for oil, resulting from market variables, could well also provide another important international impact: Russia, already hit by sanctions, faces increased budget constraints because of the fall in oil prices. According to The Wall Street Journal, “Economists say falling oil prices could kill off Russia’s flagging economic growth, forecast at no more than 0.5% this year.” Apparently, some Russian economists see $90 as their economic tipping point.
Short-term projections of U.S. oil production suggest a continued (but more modest) decline of oil imports and dependency. But will U.S. oil surpluses and lower costs transfer into oil independence? No! The oil industry is pushing hard for, and is likely to secure, an increased capacity to expand crude oil exports from the federal government. However, trafficking in oil is, and will remain, a two-way street. Price, as well as profits, will be the determining variable. Imports now contribute about one-third of the oil used in the country. The number will hover around 30 percent at least for the near future.
Who knows? We might wake up one morning to find out from public television that we are selling oil to the oil-needy Chinese, while still buying it from countries in the Middle East and maybe even Russia.
There is another possible scenario (we cannot say probable yet) at least to consider in thinking about oil’s future. Because of the likelihood of increasing economic tension between objectives related to drilling for hard-to-get-at oil and its cost, we may go to sleep one night in the not-too-distant future, after hearing again on public television (of course) that oil companies are moving in a big way into the replacement fuel business and lessening their focus on oil. Assets will be sold and bought, followed by media attention suggesting that a major structural shift is occurring in the oil industry. Let’s anticipate what oil CEOs might say: “It’s tough to make the balance sheets work. Drilling for tight oil, really most of the oil left, is just too damn expensive in light of the uncertainty of prices and demand. While still only a small percentage of the overall fuel market, replacement fuels, including natural gas-based ethanol and renewable fuels, seem to be catching on. Detroit, our earlier partner in crime (not literally, of course) in restricting consumer choices to gasoline, hasn’t helped either, recently. It is producing more and more flex-fuel vehicles. Besides continuing to make money, we would like to get off the most disliked industry lists in America.”
Stranger things have happened!
Where is Churchill when we need him? How many psychobabble articles and cable commentary about Putin and Russia could we have done without by just remembering good old Winnie’s marvelous, insightful quote in 1939? It’s as near perfection as we are going to get in trying to understand Mr. Putin and Russia. Both are “riddle[s] wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian [and Putin’s] national interest.” (The word Putin is my addition — I am sure Churchill would not have minded.) What does Putin want? Apparently not only full control of Crimea, but also instability in Eastern Ukraine.
Okay, now some of you readers are saying the same about the U.S. We seem to accept Russia’s takeover of Crimea…ah, Russia had it once anyway and it has a big naval base there. Sounds vaguely historically familiar. What about the other place, they say. What was its name? Guantanamo and Cuba! Oh, no?! Please let’s focus on Eastern Ukraine.
Forget consistency and remember Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Consistency [in foreign policy] is the hobgoblin of little minds” (Again, pardon the added-on term, foreign policy.)
Now how does oil come into all of this? None of us, not just President Obama, want to fight a war over the Ukraine, Eastern Ukraine or Crimea. If he were running again, Obama would probably borrow from Woodrow Wilson’s campaign slogan, “He kept us out of war,” at least big wars, particularly with corrupt nations some of which have a history of fascism..
Alright, let’s use tough energy sanctions — oil and natural gas. if the regulations concerning sanctions were tough, they might really hurt Russia’s economy and its ability to move out of the economic doldrums. Let’s hit them where it hurts! No, apparently, we will not, at least for now. Why? Well, Western Europe and our new ally, the Ukraine, depend on natural gas. Without it, both would be in for cold winters and probably a severe industrial recession. So what did our leaders do? They excluded natural gas from the list of recent sanctions. I suspect they, also, will allow Russia and the West to continue to trade in oil not involving new technology from the West.
Absence of natural gas in Europe and the Ukraine (and probably other Eastern Europe nations) is a plus for the U.S. We can make it up by selling natural gas. Isn’t what’s good for the U.S. bad for Russia and Mr. Putin?
Maybe, maybe not…or maybe the view that the U.S can be savior of Western Europe is a myth. Or maybe it’s just too complex for political leaders to grab hold of instantly.
Some verities to deal with:
1. Even with the current rush to permit the export of natural gas, before terminals get built and tankers are ready and environmental issues are disposed of, the first large volume of natural gas would not reach Ukraine or Western Europe until 2016 or later.
2. The U.S., despite the increase in shale development and natural gas production, still imports natural gas to meet domestic supplies — about 12.5% in total. Like big oil, exports of natural gas are to a large degree being sought to secure a higher prices overseas than in the U.S. Hurting Russia for U.S producers is a side show.
3. Russia, ostensibly, can produce natural gas and ship it by pipeline, rail or boat cheaper than we can. According to experts, the cost of U.S.-produced, transported and sold natural gas in Europe and the Ukraine is and will be much higher than Russian-produced and transported natural gas sold globally. Note in this context that Russia just cemented a $4 billion deal for Russia to sell oil to China. Will the Europeans and Ukrainians want higher-priced natural gas from the U.S.?
4. Oh, I almost forgot. Just last winter, U.S. residents in many states, particularly eastern states, nearly froze because of shortages of natural gas resulting from lack of adequate pipeline capacity and pipeline congestion. Consequently, the gas they secured came at very high prices. If ports can be built, pipeline amendments for the east coast cannot be far behind and probably should come first, if money is tight. Can we afford both, given uncertainties concerning price of natural gas and cost of drilling in tight areas? Sure. But the tradeoffs need to be carefully balanced by policymakers and the long term for investors must look bright.
It’s a puzzlement. Our policy seen by many nonpartisan observers as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery…” I will know sanctions are real when gas is included. What I won’t know is whether it will make a difference to Russia, given the fungibility of import-needy nations like China. Sanctions may bring both China and Russia something that communism has failed to do — build back a broken alliance. What I also don’t know is whether the growth of exports will significantly raise natural gas prices over time in the U.S. and lower the price differential with oil, and its derivative gasoline. If it does, producers and distributors may get rich, but opportunities for something I do care about — the development and widespread use of natural gas-based ethanol as a replacement fuel — may be impeded significantly. If this occurs, the environment, our economy and low- and moderate-income Americans may be worse off for it. Policymaking in today’s world is difficult and is something you often cannot fully learn in school.
During the late 1980s, I had the good fortune, thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation, to lead and facilitate an Aspen Global Forum between Russian and U.S. leaders in Sochi; the site of the present Olympics. The subject was economic development in the then already fragmenting, Soviet Union.
Sochi was beautiful but back then was a relatively small resort city for vacationing Russian nomenklatura. I have three memorable funny stories (at least for me) related to Sochi. I will try linking them, for better or worse, with the need for alternative fuels.
Getting to Sochi at the time provided a unique experience. The U.S. delegation which included a former U.S. Senator, several Wall Street titans, the editor of a major national newspaper, leading members of the Denver business community and myself (I was a Dean at the University of Colorado at the time) were told when we arrived at the Moscow airport in a snowstorm, we had to fly out of Moscow’s second smaller airport. We all dutifully were taken by shuttle, very slowly given the snow, to what seemed like an old, a very old facility. We quickly boarded what appeared to be a jet plane on its last legs. It was late at night and the snow was still blowing strong. The plane’s seats were broken and the bathrooms didn’t work. The cabin crew was nice but spoke only in difficult to understand broken English. Not an auspicious start to the trip. Two members of our delegation asked the pilot for 10 minutes to go into the terminal (an exaggeration of the term) to buy two or three bottles of vodka to give us courage and calm our nerves. They did get permission. It turned into a fun flight.
After we checked into the Intourist Hotel in Sochi, we all went to bed. One of the members of our delegation was a smart, tough, but very funny reporter and op-ed writer for the Rocky Mountain News. She came down the next morning and indicated most of her winter clothes were stolen from the room, while she was sleeping. I went up to the Manager of the hotel and told him what had happened. He was dutifully contrite. Every day while we were there, the reporter received a nice gift of new winter clothing to wear in the snow. At the end of the week, I thanked him and said, next time, have them take my clothes! He laughed. I was serious!
The Russian delegation hosted us in the summer home of an apparently famous Russian oligarch, whose name I forget, about 100 or so miles from Sochi. They took us there in big Army helicopters. We flew over and between the mountains and valleys of the Caucasus. The mountains were covered with much snow and looked gorgeous. One of the Russian guides opened the door so we could get a closer view. A big mistake! A member of the U.S. delegation, a well-known war experienced woman journalist, based I believe at the time in D.C, shouted close the f….n door. “I have covered many wars and been shot at. I survived. I don’t want to go down in a helicopter. We can look at the snow through a window.” She was right. At that point the helicopter seemed tilted at a significant angle to please us. We all were a bit scared but didn’t want to hurt our Russian hosts. She had no such fear. The door was closed.
If anything, except fuzzy memories, ties these stories together, it’s the snow and the mountains and a thought about building a coalition around alternative and renewable fuels to save the beauty of both and to the jobs they provide both up and down stream.
Based on the over 50 degree temperatures in Sochi during the current Olympics and the lack of abundant snow, The New York Times indicated that Daniel Scott, a professor of global change and tourism at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, was stimulated to project the future of winter sports. He noted that with a rise of global temperature possible by 2100 of 7 degrees Fahrenheit, there might not be many snowy regions left to hold the Winter Olympics. He concluded “that of the 19 cities that have hosted the Winter Olympics, as few as 10 might be cold enough by midcentury to host them again. By 2100 the number will shrink to six.”
Of the 960,000 winter sports industry jobs are supported by winter sports in the U.S. 27,000 have already been lost because of lack of snow, according to a recent NRDC report. More will be gone next season if snow fall totals continue to decline.
If we can easily check the box on one or more of the following: concern for the health of the economy, concern for the environment, concern for the quality of our water supply and the availability of water, concern for the future of the ski industry and winter sports off and on mountains, then even if we don’t ski, and even if greenhouse gas is not a top priority for some , we should be able to foster a strong coalition between environmentalists, business, nonprofits, natural gas and renewable fuel advocates. Its mandate would be to work on speeding up use of alternative natural gas based transitional fuels and helping place electric cars on a faster and cleaner track to market acceptance. The strategy is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but it will at least get the country started on a path that will reduce harmful environmental impacts of gasoline including significant GHG emissions and other pollutants. It may also help slow down the browning of our mountain areas and the closure of winter resorts and the manufacturing and retail sectors that serve them.
America needs a good dose of pragmatism and probability curves to guide its fuel policies. Advocates of natural gas based fuels and renewables should be able to coalesce around the President’s agenda with respect to weaning the nation off gasoline (one of the biggest carbon emitters) and gasoline only vehicles.
Assuming electric utilities continue to switch from coal to cleaner natural gas; scholars suggest that electric cars will be of help in reducing total carbon emissions. But EV’s are not yet ready for prime time for most low, moderate and middle class households, in light of the relatively low mileage secured on a single battery charge, the absence of retail distributers, the small vehicle size and price. When they are, let the competition begin, remembering all the while that real change in emissions and reduction of pollutants, will come after the conversion of large numbers of existing cars to flex fuel vehicles and their ability to use natural gas based fuels. Back to Sochi and indeed to the mountains throughout America, when we are asked every Christmas whether there is a Santa Claus, lets us be able to look up at magnificent snow-capped mountains and collectively say, yes there is a Santa Claus and then sing loudly, Let it snow, Let it snow, Let it snow.