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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Should we use ethical thinking to respond to harm caused by oil’s boom and bust periods?

Many years ago, I wrote a piece for the Denver Post. At the time, I was the dean of the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado. The column appeared just after the earthquake that devastated part of the Marina in San Francisco and was preceded, I believe, by a series of tornadoes in Tornado Alley in the Midwest. At the time, I expressed my concern that Congress was rushing to approve legislation that would aid individuals and communities that were negatively affected by both traumas. While I was in favor of helping them, I wondered out loud in the piece, “Why is it so easy for our leaders to immediately respond to people and communities where there is a reasonable probability that terrible events like earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding will occur relatively frequently or with some certainty over time?” Put another way, community development and home buying or renting are most often conscious choices by individuals, groups and institutions. If they can choose where to live and/or develop, and if they know in advance that their choice is risky because of geology or climate, except for emergency support, should extensive public assistance be provided without too much discussion or analysis in the form of subsidies, insurance, tax breaks (an imputed subsidy) — particularly when it’s so hard to maintain social welfare and education initiatives for the poor who have few choices?

texas2Policy polarization is as bad as political or ideological polarization and complex questions of policy deserve more than an either/or dialogue, particularly when the pool of funds, public, nonprofit or private resources is limited, and should require efficient and equitable choices. It may well be that living in risky areas is the only choice of some households, given income or job constraints. But clearly, many of the folks living in hurricane-prone areas along the East Coast (e.g., Hilton Head) or in earthquake-susceptible areas like the Marina in San Francisco, are not among the poor or very poor. Developers, who read relevant government maps and study models, also know that higher tides and flooding, likely related to climate change, are increasingly possible along America’s coast lines. Yet development still goes on and builders make profits, and in the end the public often pays when calamities happen.

Now, what does all this have to do with ethics, gasoline and alternative replacement fuels? I have been intrigued with the recent spate of articles concerning the fact that the decline of gas prices (increasing over the past two weeks, at least) has benefited certain vulnerable, low-income people and has harmed others. As important, perhaps, the decline has made community leaders and residents in areas subject to the recent oil boom worried about the impact of price reductions on the tax base, new development and maintaining services. Most are clearly more sensitive than they have been to the effect of oil boom and bust periods.

Clearly, the least advantaged among us have secured what amounts to a personal income and household budget boost from the lower costs of gasoline. It is likely that their jobs and quality of life prospects have increased simultaneously. They can search for a job farther from their home, they can visit relatives who do not live in their community more easily and affordably, they might even be able to take a vacation using their car. But other low- and, indeed, moderate-income folks have suffered either because current or anticipated cutbacks in oil production, for example, in the Texas shale area will cost or will soon cost many of them their jobs and because their communities have had to cut back on needed often promised services. An oil producer, local to the Texas shale area, recently told Financial Times: “We are stacking rigs and laying people off every day. Everyone is.”

Questions whether the current increase in oil prices is a preface to the future or are just a part of resource instability are now being argued in the media by would-be experts. But the ethical questions concerning winners and losers, as well as possible public support options and company behavior, are and will remain pervasive. They are just as difficult to answer now as they were years ago and will likely still be difficult to answer years from now.

“While the town’s oil workers [and their communities (my addition)] count themselves as victims of the slump in crude prices, they in part contributed to their own downfall,” the author of the Financial Times piece wrote. Visions of permanent, high-paying jobs drew many employees to oil-boom areas and visions of higher taxes and sustained economic growth converted town leaders to boosters for speculative spending and oil-related development — often without attention to reserves and debt.

Estimates of profits, technological inventions, such as fracking, and the high price of oil and gas just a few years ago generated producer behavior in seeking leases and installing drilling rigs.

Sorry to drop a name, but if you buy into Rawlsian ethics (and if you don’t, let’s discuss), a country’s real greatness is defined by how it treats the least among us. In this context, the oil companies deserve little sympathy. They are long-time recipients of significant direct and indirect or imputed public subsidies. Production is still rising, and their bottom line, in light of the choices they have to cut back spending, will likely remain strong.

The ethical issues, as noted earlier, are trickier for employees and towns. To some extent, employees were captured by iterative boom town publicity, employments ads, “drill, baby, drill” talk out of Washington, and reports of comparatively high income levels in oil production areas. Over America’s history, household mobility has probably raised more incomes and provided more quality of life choices to those involved than any existing public policy.

Clearly, many people who had choices because of income and family structure to begin with were motivated to move to the oil shale areas. If they chose to move and their decisions were wrong, to what extent is the larger community or the nation responsible to provide support, apart from advice? It’s a tough question, given budgetary constraints and the increased numbers of low-income folks in the nation, some of whom had no choice concerning jobs but to move to boom communities or to stay in place. Similarly, if the cities and towns involved saw oil production as their ticket to a glorious future, and if they were wrong or they didn’t hedge the bet, does management weaknesses and local boosterism merit more than sympathy for the human condition and the lack of perfection in our leaders? Again, these are tough questions because real people are involved. Many Midwestern, Southwestern, and Western areas have become ghost towns or towns that once dreamed and are now more off-the-road tourist attractions of what used to be viable communities.

Let’s go back to the future. Maybe just maybe some of these global ethical issues could be reduced if the oil industry itself assumed some responsibility for social and community problems during “bust” times. Not just a reserve fund or diverse investments and products to help the company ride out long busts, but a fund to help communities they have “rigged (excuse the play on words)” and their residents ride out the down economic tide, and for employees to relocate if they want to. Probably a bad idea, but think about it! Companies get federal help, even in boom times, even when most analysts of right and left say it’s unnecessary. What’s wrong with a relatively small payback? Values based capitalism!

Perhaps ethical issues could be lessened if the federal government and oil companies could be convinced to move toward open fuel markets. Gas prices seem to be on the rise. One way to hold them down and provide low- and moderate-income workers a break is to convert gasoline stations to fuel stations. Given the lower prices of alternative fuels, competition, in this instance, would sustain at least part of the income benefits that consumers, including low- and moderate-income consumers, have had when gas was priced at low levels. Competition might also help maintain the economy of some shale areas that, for example, produce natural gas and have, or can have, site blenders for ethanol.

As I said earlier, basic ethical problems related to resource distribution, whether related to hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes or oil economic boom and bust cycles are difficult to resolve easily. Assigning fault between public, private sectors and individuals is a complicated task, made more complicated because of numerous exogenous variables that are not readily influenced in the short term (e.g., climate change or tension in the Middle East) at least by institutional, group or human actions, as well as a lack of data concerning cause and effect relationships and the power of special interest groups. We probably are condemned to the noted political scientist Charles Lindblom’s description of policymaking as muddling through to decisions. After consulting many companies and working with citizen groups and individuals over the years, I would add that the muddling process applies in varying degrees to them also. It’s the American way and has its advantages, particularly when we are uncertain about alternative strategies. Indeed, often it has better outcomes than decisions by fiat. Many times, it helps generate consensus during decision making processes and about decisions. Importantly, it also many times increases involvement of disenfranchised constituencies. But we can try to do better muddles!

More attention paid to all the natural gas we’re wasting

Energy experts are starting to pay more attention to an important byproduct to U.S. oil extraction: the incredible amount of natural gas that gets burned off into the atmosphere, or “flared,” because it’s not profitable enough to capture at the well head.

Forbes contributor Michael Kanellos is the latest to examine the absurd practice, writing:

… the sheer volume of gas that gets flared or emitted into the atmosphere t remains truly astounding. A potential source of profits and jobs is literally transformed in bulk into an environmental hazard and potential liability around the clock.

It’s an environmental hazard because natural gas is made primarily of methane, a greenhouse gas that’s many times worse for the environment than carbon dioxide. Some methane leaks from wells and pipelines, but even when the gas is burned off, it creates some GHG emissions.

Methane has tremendous potential as a commodity, however, because it can be turned into alcohol fuels — ethanol and methanol — to run our cars and trucks. Both fuels burn much cleaner in engines, and can be cheaper for the consumer.

When the price of oil was $115 a barrel, there was little incentives for oil drillers — who put bits in the ground mainly for oil, after all — to capture and store the natural gas, because gas remains stuck in the cellar in terms of pricing. Now that oil has dropped by 60 percent over the past seven months, maybe U.S. drillers will be incentivized to keep more of the gas that comes up in the wells.

(Our blogger William Tucker has written about the flaring issue before. It’s also discussed, along with many oil-related issues, in the documentary PUMP, which is available for download on iTunes now.)

Landfills also emit methane, and much of that is flared as well. If we captured more methane and turned it into fuel, there would be more of a market for it, and the infrastructure for converting it to fuel and distributing it would grow. A whole new generation of jobs could be created in the sector, jobs that by their nature would stay in America.

Kanellos has compiled many fascinating statistics about how much natural gas is wasted by flaring, including these nuggets:

  • Since the beginning of 2010, more than 31% of the natural gas in the Bakken region has been burned off or flared. It was worth an estimated $1.4 billion.
  • Over 150 billion cubic meters, or 5.3 trillion cubic feet, get flared annually worldwide, or around $16 billion lost.
  • Flaring in Texas and North Dakota emit the equivalent amount of greenhouse gases as 500,000 cars.

Dispute flares over burned-off natural gas (WSJ)

Fracking boom waste: Flares light prairie with unused natural gas (NBC News)

Natural gas flaring in Eagle Ford Shale already surpasses 2012 levels of waste and pollution (Fox Business)

The Atlantic: Why the U.S. still needs Saudi Arabia

The Atlantic’s Matt Schiavenza has some pointed commentary on the longtime U.S.-Saudi alliance, arguing that the United States needs the Middle East kingdom “more than ever.”

Following the death of King Abdullah last week at age 90, following a lung infection, President Obama cited his “enduring contribution to the search for peace” in the region. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was a “man of wisdom and vision.”

Schiavenza then lists the ways in which Saudi policy undermines the American praise, including the lack of rights of women, and the case of blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for defending atheism.

Schiavenza writes:

Contrary to President Obama’s statement, Saudi Arabia’s role in brokering Middle Eastern peace has, at best, been unhelpful. King Abdullah bitterly opposed Washington’s support of pro-democracy protesters in Egypt and urged President Obama to use force to preserve Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. Since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi assumed the country’s leadership in 2013, Riyadh has helped finance his brutal suppression of the country’s Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia has also resisted the rise of Shia movements in the region out of fear that Iran, their main rival, will gain influence. When Shia protesters threatened the Sunni dictatorship in neighboring Bahrain, Saudi Arabia dispatched its military to suppress the uprising. Riyadh’s support of Syrian rebels, too, has backfired: Islamic State fighters have benefited from Saudi money and weapons.

The reason the United States continues to “put up with” Saudi Arabia, the writer contends, is oil. And despite ramped-up production in the U.S. shale-oil fields, the U.S. will continue to need Saudi oil. Currently there’s a glut that might worsen, since Abdullah’s successor, his half-brother Salman bin Abdul Aziz, appears unlikely to reduce oil production to stem the drop in price. Right now the U.S. produces about 9 million barrels of oil a day, comparable with Saudi output.

But the kingdom, which is the leading oil-producer in OPEC (which controls 40 percent of the world’s oil supply), is “well-positioned to survive a sustained drop in the price of oil,” Schiavenza writes, adding:

Riyadh generally needs oil to trade at $80 a barrel in order to balance its budget. But with $750 billion stashed away in reserve, the kingdom faces little pressure to reduce supply and raise the price. In addition, Saudi Arabia and fellow OPEC members Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have proved reserves of 460 billion barrels. The United States, by contrast, has proved reserves of just 10 billion—and the U.S. Energy Information Agency forecasts that American shale oil production will plateau in 2020.

Fracking offers hope

I’ve just finished The Frackers, the excellent history of how the United States became the world’s leading developer of fossil fuels, by former Wall Street Journal reporter Gregory Zuckerman.

There are three lessons that can be taken away from this history, all of which relate to the development of alternative sources of energy:

  • The government had very little to do with the development of fracking. It was all done by wildcatters who operated far outside major institutions.
  • The founders of these methods didn’t necessarily get permanently rich. All have done well initially but have been undone by their very success, producing a superabundance of gas and oil that has driven down prices to the point where producers are overextended.
  • The maverick wildcatters who have opened up our gas and oil resources are not necessarily opposed to alternative sources of energy. In fact, they have often become the biggest promoters of wind, solar and alternative fuels for our transport sector.

Let’s examine those myths one by one:

The government should get credit for the breakthroughs. Proponents of big government often try to promote the idea that the fracking revolution never would have occurred without the help of the government. They even argue that government was responsible for the fracking initiative. Three years ago, Ted Norhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute published a piece in The Washington Post in which they practically argued that fracking had been invented in the laboratories of the Department of Energy. George Mitchell, who spent 40 years developing fracking, had simply borrowed a few ideas that the DOE had designed.

Read the opening chapter on Mitchell in The Frackers, and you’ll hardly find one reference to the Department of Energy or government help. At one point the DOE contributed a few million dollars to an experiment that Mitchell had designed, but that was it. The rest of the story tells of Mitchell’s fascination with trying to suck oil out of shale rock, and how he nearly bankrupted his moderately successful oil company in the effort. He had no luck trying to convince the major oil companies that shale could be accessed. At one point, Chevron came very close to fracking the Barnett Shale, where Mitchell had his first breakthrough, but the company gave up on the effort. Harold Hamm experienced the same frustrations in the Bakken, where he alone believed there were vast reserves of oil but couldn’t get anyone to support him, until he finally made a breakthrough. The government had nothing to do with it.

Fracking wildcatters always get rich. The great irony for many of these pioneers is that they are often undone by their own success. Aubrey McClendon built Chesapeake Gas into the nation’s second-largest producer of natural gas but was forced to give up his company because the success of his fracking had driven the price of gas so low that he was overextended. The same thing happened to Tom Ward, an early associate of McClendon’s who had built his own company, SandRidge, based on fracking. Ward was forced out of his ownership by the board of directors. Harold Hamm has been having the same trouble in The Bakken since the superabundance of oil has forced the price down. Developing a new source of energy doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be permanently rich.

The developers of new ways to access fossil fuels are opposed to other alternatives. Because they have been so successful in reviving production of oil and gas, the assumption has been that the Frackers are wedded to fossil fuels and are undercutting alternatives. This is not true. The primary motive of all these innovators has been to make America more energy-independent and reduce our reliance on foreign oil. All of them see the development of fossil fuels as only a temporary step, and acknowledge that we must ultimately find some other sources of energy. T. Boone Pickens, the dean of oil magnates, put forth a plan that would try to get the electrical sector to rely on wind so that natural gas could be moved over to the transport sector to replace oil. His Clean Energy Fuels Corporation had some success in building a “natural gas highway” that substitutes compressed natural gas for diesel fuel in long-haul tractor trailers. Both Mitchell and Hamm have been exploring alternative energy, and they’re funding efforts to try to substitute renewables for fossil fuels, both domestic and imported.

As Zuckerman concludes at the end of The Frackers:

The great leap forward should have involved alternative energy, not oil and gas. The U.S. government allocated over $150 billion to green initiatives between 2009 and 2014. … There’s little to show for the investments, however. … Instead a group of frackers, relying on market cues rather than government direction, achieved dramatic advances by focusing on fossil fuels, of all things. It’s a stark reminder that breakthroughs in the business world usually are achieved through incremental advances, often in the face of deep skepticism, rather than government inspired eureka moments.

It’s a lesson worth keeping in mind as we pursue alternative fuels to substitute for foreign oil.

Oil closes down again, lands just above $50 mark

Whatever the floor is for oil, $50 doesn’t seem to be it.

Brent crude closed just a few barrel-drops within that threshold Friday, down 85 cents to $50.11. U.S. crude fell 43 cents to $48.36. The marks are the lowest for crude since April 2009, and represented the seventh straight week of losses.

However, prices recovered from even steeper losses during the day after Baker Hughes, the U.S. oilfield-services company, announced that the number of rigs drilling for oil domestically had fallen by 61 this week, the most during a week since 1991.

Read more in Reuters.

That contraction in supply has many observers believing that prices will find the bottom soon. Former Shell Oil President John Hofmeister, one of the experts quoted in PUMP the Movie, notes that the surplus of oil we keep hearing about only amounts to roughly 1 percent of global consumption, which is about 90 million barrels a day (The U.S. uses about 18 mbd). He thinks the current slide is an “anomaly,” and that prices will begin climbing again in the spring.

Here’s what he said on Bloomberg:

At some point … we have to reassess where are we, in terms of the supply-demand equilibrium. … I call this an anomaly, in terms of oil price, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it bottoming out … and starting to go up again late in the spring. … It doesn’t take much to wipe out this anomaly.

Tariq Zahir, managing member at Tyche Capital Advisors in Laurel Hollow in New York, told Reuters:

“In my opinion we have not stabilized out yet. I do think that after seven weeks of losses, you will see a bounceback at some point, and people are waiting for that to short into. I am.”

Ben Casselman: The conventional wisdom on oil is always wrong

This is something we knew already: Oil prices fluctuate. Like all commodities, prices go up, and then they go down, and few experts know exactly why, or how far, or for how long trends will endure.

But’s Ben Casselman, who used to cover the oil patch for The Wall Street Journal, outlines (in typical well-executed FiveThirtyEight style), all the ways that people have gotten oil predictions so horribly wrong this year.

Here’s one of the many instructive passages from his piece:

It isn’t just that experts didn’t see the shale boom coming. It’s that they underestimated its impact at virtually every turn. First, they didn’t think natural gas could be produced from shale (it could). Then they thought production would fall quickly if natural gas prices dropped (they did, and it didn’t). They thought the techniques that worked for gas couldn’t be applied to oil (they could). They thought shale couldn’t reverse the overall decline in U.S. oil production (it did). And they thought rising U.S. oil production wouldn’t be enough to affect global oil prices (it was).

Now, oil prices are cratering, falling below $55 a barrel from more than $100 earlier this year. And so, the usual lineup of experts — the same ones, in many cases, who’ve been wrong so many times in the past — are offering predictions for what plunging prices will mean for the U.S. oil boom. Here’s my prediction: They’ll be wrong this time, too.

Among the many reasons why pundits’ crystal balls are so often murky: various factors go into the makeup of prices; and the economics of oil-field drilling are complicated, which is why even “break-even” declarations about when oil-shale drilling in Texas or North Dakota might become unprofitable can be off base as well.

As to the first point — all the factors that comprise the fluctuating price of oil — Cassleman writes:

In July 2008, my Journal colleague Neil King asked a wide range of energy journalists, economists and other experts to anonymously predict what the price of oil would be at the end of the year. The nearly two dozen responses ranged from $70 a barrel at the low end to $167.50 at the high end. The actual answer: $44.60.

It isn’t surprising that experts aren’t good at predicting prices. Global oil markets are a function of countless variables — geopolitics, economics, technology, geology — each with its own inherent uncertainty. And even if you get those estimates right, you never know when a war in the Middle East or an oil boom in North Dakota will suddenly turn the whole formula on its head.

But none of that stops television pundits from making confident predictions about where oil prices will head in the coming months, and then using those predictions as the basis for production forecasts. Based on their track record, you should ignore them.

The Economist: Benefit of cheap gas depends on ‘sheiks vs. shale’ tussle

Cheap gasoline provides an overall economic benefit, The Economist writes in an article titled “Sheikhs vs. shale.”

The price drop of some $40 since June (from above $110 to about $70) has shifted “some $1.3 trillion from producers to consumers. The typical American motorist, who spent $3,000 in 2013 at the pumps, might be $800 a year better off—equivalent to a 2% pay rise.”

But will oil stay cheap? That’s the big question. How long the economic benefit of depressed prices lasts depends on:

” … a continuing tussle between OPEC and the shale-drillers [in the United States]. Several members of the cartel want it to cut its output, in the hope of pushing the price back up again. But Saudi Arabia, in particular, seems mindful of the experience of the 1970s, when a big leap in the price prompted huge investments in new fields, leading to a decade-long glut. Instead, the Saudis seem to be pushing a different tactic: let the price fall and put high-cost producers out of business. That should soon crimp supply, causing prices to rise.”

In short, gasoline is cheap now. We need to ensure it stays cheap.

Read more at and

(Photo credit: Dan Weinbaum, posted to


Low prices keep shale oil in the ground, for now

A Reuters opinion piece by Mike Corones postulates that low oil prices could actually be good for the environment, as U.S. drillers are forced to hold off on new wells until the pricing structure recovers.

That, in turn, means much of the hard-to-reach shale oil that is fueling the worldwide glut of supply will stay in the ground. And that, at least, is good for the environment.

Read the whole piece here.

Abbott and Costello, war, sectarianism and Middle Eastern oil — a trifecta

Abbott & CostelloI bet only those on Medicare, like me, remember the old Abbott and Costello joke, “Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third”… or something like that.

The dialogue was funny at the time. But the joke, in some respects, tracks the current, very serious situation in the Middle East: Who’s on first, a very militant Sunni group called ISIS; What’s on second, well maybe Iraq (if it can get its act together, which is increasingly unlikely); and, I Don’t Know exactly who’s on third, maybe the Peshmerga from among the Kurdish Regional State in Iraq and, perhaps soon, a surprise addition from the Kurdish PKK military group living among Kurds in Turkey. Who are the umpires? Perhaps Israel. Maybe OPEC. How about the world’s respected ethicists — if they can ever agree.

Isn’t this fun? Let’s try it again, for there are several possible lineups. Let’s try this one: Who’s on first, how about the Assad-related Shiites in Syria. What’s on second, the new caliphate in Iraq and Syria. I Don’t Know exactly who’s on third, maybe, but unlikely, in light of its numerous conflicting interests (e.g., NATO, Islam, etc.), Turkey. Who’s the hapless lonely umpire or umpires at home plate? Perhaps, the U.N. — the so-called moderate rebels. Perhaps the USA, England or France, or perhaps all three. After all, each Western country has had, at best, a difficult, morally ambiguous historical record in the area, and faces a tough, complex future. Justice and fairness have not always guided their respective objectives and actions. If you believe they have, step up to the plate and you can buy the Brooklyn Bridge for a dollar.

It’s a crazy baseball game! I know the Israelis are in the stands but they have found it tough to get emotional. In their view, at least, both of the team’s captains are Iranian. Since it’s not in the official lineup, the game has little meaning to the Israelis.

We are not sure that all the batters, base runners and umpires are on the same team or in the same game. At times, some players appear to run right and some left. Some run into each other. Others don’t run at all. Most appear to be playing by Middle Eastern norms, which mean they frequently change uniforms, roles, rules and alliances. The umpires seem to be confused and frustrated. They may be ready soon to go for a higher legal or spiritual reviewer but they cannot agree on which one (e.g., the International Court of Justice, God or his or her surrogate).

I yearn for the simplicity of just a year or two ago — before ISIS. Many of our leaders and media types referred to America’s role then in terms of seeking stability in the Middle East. Some even suggested, often knowing better, that it was based on a commitment to establishing western-style democracy. Very few played Don Quixote, or even a good forensic economist searching for the truth. U.S. and Western involvement in the Middle East for a long time has been, to a large degree, premised on dependency on oil. As dependency on oil imports was recently reduced significantly to about 30-35 percent of total oil use because of tight oil development, increased fuel standards, and a slow growth economy, the U.S. has agreed to defend our allies’ right to unfettered international oil transportation from wellhead to refinery.

Democracy and oil proved to be an uneasy mix. Secular animosity and intense internal as well as external competition for oil revenue and market share seemed much more difficult than the naive assertion made after 9/11 that the Iraq citizenry would welcome U.S. military with cheering crowds — shades of WWII after U.S. troupes retook Paris. If only it could have been!

What has occurred in the past year or so has once again shifted the game players, the rules and roles (the ecology of Middle Eastern games). The rise of ISIS and its quick absorption of land in both Syria and Iraq combined with its brutality toward the vanquished in captured territories as well as detained westerners has shifted U.S. and its new coalition’s (e.g., England, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, Kurds, etc.) attention away from getting rid of Assad to stopping establishment of the caliphate. No longer is democracy a major goal. How could it be with such tested democratic states as Saudi Arabia and Qatar front and center? I shouldn’t be cynical…or should I? Now the focus is on stability — translated: salvage what can salvaged from what is left of Iraq and assumedly prevention of what appears to be an increasing sectarianism from disintegrating into wars fought over God and Mammon or maybe my God and your Mammon or vice versa. The new coalition led by the U.S., apart from the British and French includes:

  • Implicitly, Iran, despite Iran’s enmity and its support of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
  • Syria, despite its vicious regime, a regime that has killed or terrorized large sectors of its population, far more than ISIS has to date and probably will far into the future.
  • Qatar, whose chameleon foreign policy reminds one constantly of Ronald Reagan’s quote about the Russians, “Trust but verify.”
  • Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-dominated kingdom, that, until the Arab Spring, seemed reasonably secure in its religious, non-democratically based, very conservative legal framework, as well as a caste and class system based on discrimination and corruption.
  • Iraq, a country that, despite U.S. support, is a nation in name only. It is divided by sectarianism into at least three potential would-be nations — each one dominated by dominant religious and ethnic groups. Its central government is unable or unwilling to secure consensus as to governance and military approaches. Its army, despite years of U.S.-supported training and U.S.-supplied weaponry has been, up to now, no match for ISIS. Its sectarian-controlled militias are not committed to consensus building and may end up as a threat to further nation building.

The new coalition has shaken up the Middle East and suggests the old adage that, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Endorsement of the present nation states in the Middle East, as well as opposition to territorial aggrandizement and religious extremism, provides the rationale for U.S. and Western involvement in the current war.

But, irrespective of the coalition’s normative marching orders about stopping extremism and a big land grasp, I suspect that oil or trafficking in oil remains a key factor, indirectly or directly, in back-room decisions to push back ISIS boundaries. Let’s see: the Saudis must soon consider increasing the price of a barrel of oil if it is to avoid the need to cut back on services to its citizens and risk tension. It also must soon consider an increase in oil prices if it is to sustain its defense budget in terms of the present conflict with ISIS. While the U.S. has surpassed the Saudis in oil production, Saudi oil is needed by the West and Asia to avoid significant future price rises premised on future growth. As a result, the U.S. will remain a protector of oil transit. Apart from fearing the collapse of Iraq for political, economic and moral reasons, the U.S. is still committed to safeguarding Iraq’s oil and the oil from one of its regions, the Kurdish Regional Government, for its allies and also for the revenue needed by both. Qatar is a conundrum. Today, it’s a western ally against ISIS; yesterday, reports indicated it supported militants in the Gaza. Which twin has the Tony? Where will it be tomorrow? Finally, remember ISIS needs oil for revenues to function as a government.

If only! If only we could find home-grown, market-acceptable substitutes for oil and its derivative gasoline that would relieve any hint or suspicion that oil or gasoline would be even an indirect consideration in a U.S. or Western nation decisions to go to war. We are not there yet, in terms of the majority of the vehicle owners. But we are getting close with alcohol-based fuels, biofuels, and hydrogen and electric cars.