USA, USA, USA…The search for competitive fuel choices

“USA, USA, USA, USA.” No, I didn’t just come from watching the U.S. playing in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. But after reading the glowing, cheerleading, overly enthusiastic, often-nationalistic media accounts of the U.S. overtaking the Saudis in oil production, the win-lose aspects of the soccer chant somehow became embedded in my persona (like counting sheep or gas pumps at night when I can’t sleep). We beat the Saudis at their own game — oil. We’re number one…wow! Next, will we emulate the Saudis and place onerous and discriminatory restrictions on women drivers and, unlike the Saudis, argue that it’s a conservation measure? Of course not! We don’t have to be number one in everything. But oil does make strange bedfellows, and equally strange behavior, as well as policies.

Unfortunately, most of the media stories avoid analysis of what the new oil prominence of the U.S. means to the nation and world. Yes, increased production likely means less dependence on the Middle East, particularly Saudi oil. Indeed, we now import about 33% of oil needs, the lowest percentage in years.

But oil independence remains a myth. Oil interests are pushing for a reduction of regulations concerning exports of U.S. crude oil and have always exported considerable refined oil products allowed by the law. Their motives, despite frequent public comments to the contrary, are generally to sell to the price, which means to the buyer who offers the most return. He, she or it frequently is a global purchaser. Independence is a slogan that often blurs motive and reflects good politics but bad substance and contrary to reality.

The U.S., as the most powerful western nation, irrespective of any mathematical domestic surplus, will continue to extend its role as defender of the global supply chain from the Middle East or elsewhere. While we may be less dependent on foreign oil, U.S. leaders have, in the past, and likely will in the future, use a combination of diplomacy and military threats and action to defend and sustain the flow of foreign oil to allies or assumed allies. In this context, the role we play in the world extends our dependency. Unfortunately, wars will be fought and U.S. soldiers will die because of this felt dependency.

Most of the “USA, USA, USA” chants in the media coverage of our new oil prowess, implicitly neglects the difficult juxtaposition between increased oil production and supplies and higher gas prices. Less dependence hasn’t brought the reduction, or even stabilization, of gas prices promised by the oil industry. Gasoline in California is now generally well over $4 a gallon for regular, and averages over $3.60 a gallon across the nation. Why? We have a surplus, don’t we? Oil companies want to export more, and it appears that they will be able to do just that, soon. As Dr. Pangloss asked in “Candide,” is this the “best of all possible worlds” (let me add, for the U.S.)?

Clearly, the cost of oil at the pump is not strongly linked (at the present time) to the amount of U.S. oil that shows up on EIA calculations and projections. Both price and supply are going up simultaneously. Yes, there is uncertainty, given events in the Middle East and yes, uneven growth around the world has increased demand in some areas and suppressed it in others. The link between high prices and the Middle East is difficult to measure precisely. Consumer costs per gallon are likely affected more by investors, as well as speculation on Wall Street, than the actual numbers concerning increased production of U.S. oil.

So, apart from prayer and penitence, what can we do to get a better deal for consumers, and to prevent gasoline from becoming a negative factor concerning U.S. GDP growth and the environment? How can we help assure that being number one means robust economic growth, more income in the wallets of Americans (particularly low-income Americans), increased security and fewer dirty emissions?

These are not easy questions, and they do not lend themselves to simple ideological responses. Clearly, as renewable fuels and vehicles that meet the incomes and desires of most Americans become available, both will play a vital role in America’s future. But reliance on coal-fired utilities for power in some areas of the nation, battery costs, mileage limitations from single battery charges, and lack of infrastructure impede their ability to have a significant positive impact at the present. The market for renewable fuels and vehicles is relatively small and will remain so until technological advances catch up with potential demand.

Where is the Greek philosopher Diogenes when we need him? We have a path in front of us that would buy time toward a better American future, one that could offer competition to gasoline — competition that would be good for the economy, the consumer and the environment. Increased availability of replacement fuels, particularly natural gas-based ethanol, combined with large-scale conversion of older cars to flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) and increased production of new FFVs by Detroit, would give gasoline a run for the money, if gas-only stations become fuel stations and provide consumers with a choice. According to the Renewable Fuels Association, less than one percent of all gas stations in the U.S. that are branded by the big oil companies offer E15 or E85.

I remain an optimist that more freedom will reign soon at the pump. The noted people’s philosopher, Charles M. Schulz, creator of “Peanuts” comic strips, lessened my fears about the future when he said, “Stop worrying about the world ending today. It’s already tomorrow in Australia.” USA, USA, USA. Fuel choice, fuel choice, fuel choice!

A return to making love, not war – Iraq and replacement fuels

Early on I wrote a column about an unanticipated Thanksgiving dinner conversation with a special operations soldier who had served in Iraq. His comment, in response to a question I asked about whether he and his buddies knew why they were sent to Iraq, was brief and blunt: “oil and U.S. security.” He would have none of what he thought was b.s. about “freedom and democracy” or “weapons of mass destruction.” Before I asked the question I actually already knew what his answer would be, but a glass of wine, a wonderful piece of turkey and good company suggested that my inquiry would lead to an opening for a longer repartee on the Middle East and U.S. policy. It did, and again oil and oil politics were the dominant theme.

I suspect that many of the writers of today’s headlines and op-ed articles anticipated Republican Eric Cantor would win. They are now arguing, in sometimes misleading reference terms concerning democracy, inter-sectarian harmony and morality, for a more aggressive U.S. policy toward the invasion by Sunni radicals of parts of what once on a map called the nation of Iraq.

But the real issue for many “experts,” I again suspect, is oil — a fear, whether factual or not, that if Iraq collapses, the world oil supply (already close to equilibrium concerning demand and supply) will relatively quickly reflect shortages and much higher prices per barrel of oil ($150 a barrel) and oil’s product, gasoline ($5 and more).

Should we be sending kids to fight for our apparent God-given right to Middle Eastern oil? Although I think a lot about the ethics of public decision making, I am not an ethicist. But as long as there are alternatives to supply, my hard-nosed policy advice would be against war or the steps that might lead to war. Iraq has not been the noble state that welcomed America in to rescue it ostensibly from Saddam Hussein. Its form of democracy has been limited, corrupt and sectarian.

What should our calculations be, concerning alternative supplies of oil? First, we ought to really think through whether a full or partial shutdown of Iraqi oil wells will mean a damn. Iraq alone supplies a small share of U.S. oil imports. Most of the often-shrill economic coverage of the radical Sunni invasion and its potential impact on U.S. oil seems to relate more to perceptions, not empirical evidence, about shortages and prices. Commentators “perceive” what the oil markets might or will do — really what oil speculators and investors will or will not do — based on what is currently happening in Iraq, not on facts on the ground. Neil Cavuto of Fox Business said, “Oil is a commodity, a global commodity, and like any stock in almost any market, it often trades on issues having little to do with basic fundamentals, and more to do with simple fear.”

Assuming, however, there is a real worldwide shortage of oil as a result of a closure of Iraqi wells, or that fear drives the prices up so much that there is a strain to the economy, the Saudis, probably, among all the OPEC nations, are the only ones with sufficient oil in the ground to make an immediate difference concerning supply. But will they? They have shown some flexibility in the past to U.S. petitioning. They have also, at times, despite their security relationship to the U.S., turned us down. This time around the Saudis could well be more than a bit sensitive, particularly if it looks like the radical Sunnis might win. The Kingdom is vulnerable with respect to a radical brand of Sunniism. I bet they also fear a potential Shiite effort to push the radicals back, particularly one led by Iran. Life is never simple for the House of Saud.

Okay, where are we? Oil is sold in an international marketplace. No matter which side you are on regarding the Keystone XL pipeline, if approved and completed, it will not have a major impact on U.S. gas supply or prices. Ask your friendly oil refinery or oil company executive where he or she believes Keystone-supplied oil will be going. Most of the assumed supply will be traded internationally for the highest global price. The predicted increased supply of U.S.-produced gasoline will probably help diminish price increases slightly, but don’t make a bet on how much. Today, a price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline is well over $4 in California and U.S. production is at a very high level.

What would likely help keep gasoline prices from spiking significantly and, at the same time, lessen the amplitude of the cycles is a commitment to competition in the fuel marketplace. Let Adam Smith reign! Allow safe, cheaper, environmentally better replacement fuels, particularly natural gas-based ethanol (and someday soon, methanol) to compete with gasoline. Encourage the conversion of older vehicles to flex-fuel vehicles! Push for renewable fuels and related vehicles that appeal to a larger market than at present, given costs and design constraints! Reduce our dependence on imported oil! Make love, not war! Drive (excuse the pun) for strategic solutions!