Of myths, oil companies and a competitive fuel market

I do not wish to join the intense dialogue concerning whether or not the government should allow exports of crude oil. Others are already doing a good job of confusing and obscuring the pros and cons of selling increased amounts of America’s growing oil resources overseas.

What I do want to do is just focus on the logic of one of the oil industry’s major arguments for extending the permitting of exports — again, not on the wisdom of exporting policy. Permit me to do so in the context of the industry’s long-standing argument concerning the pricing of gasoline to U.S. consumers. The argument is that more oil drilling in the U.S. will lower the price of gas and put America on the path to oil “independence.”

In somewhat of circuitous manner, oil companies are using the opposite of their domestic advocacy for “drill, baby, drill” policy as a way to keep prices lower at the pump. Their yin is that producing more oil in the U.S. and sending significant amounts overseas, combined with declining vehicular fuel demand, will lower gas prices. Economist Adam Smith would applaud the simplicity if he were alive and well. Their yang presents a bit more complicated set of “ifs.” That is, the industry presumes that fulfillment of the yen (excuse another pun) to export will result in more U.S. oil being drilled because of increased world demand generated by the assumed ability of the U.S. to produce oil at less costs than the world price for oil. It will also help foster infrastructure development in the U.S. to break up current log jams concerning oil transportation. Finally, it will facilitate more efficient refineries, allowing them to specialize in different types of oil. The yin and yang will result in (marginally) lower prices of gasoline — so goes the rhetoric and oil-industry-paid-for studies.

Paraphrasing Dr. Pangloss in “Candide,” the oil companies hope for the “best of all possible worlds.” But, before Americans run out and buy stock, note the price of gasoline does not directly reflect oil production volume. Indeed, gas prices, despite increased supplies, have gyrated significantly and now hover nationally over $4 a gallon. Generally, oil and gas prices relate to international prices, tension in the Middle East and investor and banker speculation — not always or directly domestic costs. Stockholders and executives of oil companies function not on patriotism but on profit and to the extent that the law permits, they will sell overseas to get the best price — in effect, the best dollar over payment for a barrel of oil. Consumers, I suspect, are rarely a significant part of their opportunity costing.

Unfortunately, lack of strong empirical evidence tempers the company’s argument that increased world demand will stimulate good things like refinery efficiency and log-jam-ending infrastructure. Maybe if the price per barrel is right (clearly, higher than it is now) and seems predictable for more than a small period of time, refinery and infrastructure developments will be positive. But, the costs to the consumer, in this context, will be higher. It will also be higher because shale oil is tight oil and more risky and costly to drill.

Oil independence is a myth suggested by oil industry and a non-analytical media. Certainly, the oil boom and less vehicular demand have generated less imports and less dependency. But we still buy nearly 300 billion dollars’ worth of oil every year to respond to need and we still produce far less than demand.

Somewhere in the dark labyrinth of each major oil company is a pumped-up (another pun), never-used, secret justification for franchise agreements impeding the sale of alternative fuels in their retail outlets. To alleviate guilt, it may go something like this: “Monopolies at the pump will allow us to make larger profits. You know we will someday soon want to give back some of the profits to consumers by lowering the price of gasoline.” If you believe this still-secret beneficence, let me sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.

There is another way to steady the gasoline market and lower consumer costs. Inexpensive conversions to allow older vehicles to use safe, cheaper and environmentally better alternative fuels (as opposed to gasoline), combined with expanded use by flex-fuel owners of alternative fuels, would add competition to the fuel market and likely reduce prices for consumers. Natural-gas-based ethanol is on the horizon and methanol, once the EPA approves, will follow, hopefully shortly thereafter. Electric cars, once costs are lower and distance on single charges is higher, will be a welcome addition to the competitive mix.

Is Elon Musk the next Henry Ford?

Elon Musk doesn’t mind making comparisons between himself and Henry Ford. Others are doing it as well.

In announcing his plans for a “Gigafactory” to manufacture batteries for a fleet of 500,000 Teslas, Musk said it would be like Ford opening his famous River Rouge plant, the move that signaled the birth of mass production.

The founder of PayPal and current titular leader of Silicon Valley (now that Steve Jobs is gone), Musk is not one for small measures. The factory he is now dangling before four western states would produce more lithium-ion batteries than are now being produced in the entire world. And that’s not all. He’s designing his new operation to mesh with another cutting-edge, non-fossil-fuel energy technology – solar storage. His partner will be SolarCity (where Musk sits on the board), run by his cousin Lyndon Rive. Together they are looking beyond mere automobile propulsion and are envisioning a world where all this solar and wind energy stuff comes true.

So, is Musk a modern-day Prometheus, bringing the fire to propel an entirely new transportation system? Or, as many critics charge, is he just conning investors onto a leaky vessel that is eventually going to crash upon the shores of reality? As the saying goes, we report, you decide.

One investor that is already showing some qualms is Panasonic, which already supplies Tesla with all its batteries and would presumably help the company fill the gap between the $2 billion it just raised from a convertible-bond offering and the $5 billion needed to build the plant. “Our approach is to make investments step by step,” Panasonic President Kazuhiro Tsuga told reporters at a briefing in Tokyo last week. “Elon plans to produce more affordable models besides [the] Model S, and I understand his thinking and would like to cooperate as much as we can. But the investment risk is definitely larger.” Of course, this is Japan, where “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Corporate executives are not known for sticking their necks out.

Another possible investor is Apple, which has mountains of cash and, at least under Steve Jobs, was always willing to jump into some new field – music, cell phones – to try to set it straight. This is a little more ambitious than the Lisa or the iPod and Jobs is no longer around to steer the ship, but Apple and Musk officials held a meeting last spring that stirred a lot of talk about a possible merger. A much more likely scenario, according to several commentators, is that Apple would become a major player in the Gigafactory.

And a Gigafactory it will be. Consider this. The three largest battery factories in the country right now are:

1)    The LG Chem factory in Holland, Mich. is 600,000 square feet, employs 125 people and produces 1 gigawatt hour (GWH) of battery output per year.

2)    The Nissan factory in Smyrna, Tenn. is a 475,000 square-foot facility with 300 employees puts out 4.8 GWH per year.

3)    A123 Systems’ battery factory in Livonia, Mich. is 291,000 square feet, employs 400 people and produces 0.6 GWH per year.

Both LG and Nissan received stimulus grants from the Department of Energy, built to overcapacity and are now operating part-time.

Now here’s what Musk is proposing. His Gigafactory would cover 10 million square feet, employ 6,500 people and produce 35 GWH per year of battery power. Basically, Musk’s operation is going to be ten times better anything ever built before, at a time that most of what exists isn’t even running fulltime. Does that sound like something of Henry-Ford proportions? Similar to Ford’s $5 a day wages, perhaps?

There are, of course, people who think all of this is crazy. In the Wall Street Journal blog, “Will Tesla’s $5 Billion Gigafactory Make a Battery Nobody Else Wants?,” columnist Mike Ramsey expresses skepticism over whether Tesla’s strategy of using larger numbers of smaller lithium-ion is the right approach. “Every other carmaker is using far fewer, much larger batteries,” he wrote. “Tesla’s methodology – incorrectly derided in its early days as simply using laptop batteries — has allowed it to get consumer electronics prices for batteries while companies like General Motors Co. and Nissan Motor Co. work to drive down costs without the full benefits of scale. Despite this ability to lower costs, no other company is following Tesla’s lead. Indeed, in speaking with numerous battery experts at the International Battery Seminar and Exhibit in Ft. Lauderdale a few weeks ago, they said that the larger cells would eventually prove to be as cost effective, and have better safety and durability. This offers a reason why other automakers haven’t gone down the same path.

But Musk has managed to produce a car that has a range of 200 miles, while the Leaf has a range of 85 miles and the Chevy Spark barely makes 82. Musk must be doing something right. And with Texas, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico all vying to be the site of the Gigafactory, it’s more than likely that the winning state will be kicking in something as well. So, the factory seems likely to get built, even on the scheduled 2017 rollout that Tesla has projected.

At that point, Musk will have the capacity to produce batteries to go in 500,000 editions of the Tesla Model E, which he says will sell for $35,000. Sales of the $100,000 Model S were 22,000 last year. Does this guy think big or what?

To date, Silicon Valley doesn’t have a terribly good record on energy projects. Since Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers fell under Al Gore’s spell in 2006, its earnings have been virtually flat and the firm is now edging away from solar and wind investments. Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla’s spotty record in renewables was also the subject of a recent 60 Minutes segment. But, as venture capitalists say, it only takes one big success to make up for all the failures.

Will Tesla’s Model E be the revolutionary technology that, at last, starts making a dent in oil’s grip on the transportation sector? At least one investor has faith. “I’d rather leave all my money to Elon Musk that give it to charity,” was the recent evaluation of multi-billionaire Google founder Larry Page.

Model building, Playboy and the impact of ethanol on gasoline prices

I recently read a number of provocative articles (or their summaries) by MIT’s Christopher Knittel and Aaron Smith. They faulted a pair of respected researchers from Iowa State University, Dermot Hayes and Ziaodong Du, in somewhat harsh tones. According to Knittel, the Iowa State pair, in their ethanol-related studies over a three year period (from 2009 through 2012), exaggerated the impact of ethanol on gas prices using relatively low present day ethanol blends.

I thought I was reading the script for a new urban crime show about drugs. Knittel, frequently, used terms like crack ratio and crack spread, ostensibly to note the weak link, found by Hayes at Iowa State, between the prices of ethanol and oil and both to gas costs at the pump. According to the authors, the price of gasoline is not substantially affected by the crack ratio; that is, the relative value of gasoline compared to oil or the price of gasoline divided by the price of oil and the current volume of its ethanol content.

Knittel’s papers angered Hayes, of the Iowa study. He claimed that, over time, the crack ratio and crack spread reflected a pretty strong causal relationship to gas prices. Language in his response to Knittel’s critique reminded me of those wonderful days when I was a dean, listening to different faculty, sometimes personally and sometimes based on methodology, criticize other faculty based on differing research results. The search for academic truth is often a noble road, but paraphrasing Robert Frost, a “road less traveled” — a road often full of human frailty and intellectual potholes.

Despite their critique of each other, both Knittel and Hayes’ studies are important and both, when read in context, should help one better understand the role of ethanol in affecting the cost of gas at the pump. Knittel is more right than wrong when he indicates that the crack ratio and spread does not fully explain the effect of ethanol on gas and oil prices, over time, and he is also correct in challenging the model used by Hayes to identify a reduction of $0.89 to $1.09 on gas prices because of higher ethanol production and higher crude oil prices.

Hypothetically, in isolation from other variables, the higher the crack ratio, the higher the price of gasoline. Further, if the price of ethanol is relatively low or on a downward trend, increased use of ethanol in gasoline blends, in theory, would cause the crack ratio to go down and the spreads to be higher, assuming gas prices remain the same or increase. Good news for consumers! Right? Maybe? Not always? Not at all? Not sure? What if?

I cannot claim real modeling expertise and would not, even for a minute, arbitrate between Knittel and Hayes concerning their use of models and its result — in terms of Hayes, significant impact of ethanol, in terms of Knittel, minor impact of ethanol.

But in terms of the policy argument between them, I suspect Knittel comes out the winner (full disclosure: I did graduate from MIT and while I love Iowa’s rolling hills, I do not like the climate and the fact that the state does not have a great symphony, nor a NFL football or American League baseball team). He points out that the crack ratio’s fluctuations in the ‘80s occurred when oil prices both declined and increased. Ethanol was not a factor and the movements in the crack ratio were not based on ethanol production. He seemingly, correctly, faults the folks in Iowa for not using the crack spread model in their 2011 and 2012 papers to evaluate the impact of eliminating ethanol because the two models —crack ratio which they used and crack spread which they didn’t — produce significantly different results and policy implications.

What does the dispute over models and model use have to do with public policy? A lot! The ethanol supporters touted the Iowa studies to support their claim that increased ethanol use reduces costs to consumers in a major way. Conversely, the ethanol critics suggest that the Knittel analysis debunks the assertion that use of ethanol as a blend will reduce gas prices in a major way.

Knittel suggests the Iowa studies vastly overstate the cost-related benefits of ethanol to the consumer and that Iowa’s model disregards or blurs the effect of price changes and swings in price of both ethanol and oil. Knittel also indicates that that the relationships between oil and gas prices, as well as oil, gas and ethanol prices are much less precise and more complicated than indicated by Hayes’ modeling efforts. Prices of all three fuels are much more subject to behavior and external events than acknowledged by either Knittel or Hayes.

The dialogue between Knittel and Hayes is helpful in sorting cost and price issues regarding ethanol and gasoline. I hope they continue at it, with less emotion, and with analyses better grounded in methodological analyses that generate a better job of linking model building with experience and empiricism. Meanwhile, no matter whether you believe the effect of ethanol on gas prices is high, moderate or low, if the U.S. government acquiesces in the use of higher ethanol blends like E60 and E85, and if the cost spread between ethanol and gasoline continues, an increasingly visible positive impact on fuel prices will likely be witnessed at the pump. Apart from any possible price differential related to use of higher blends, increased use of ethanol as an alternative transitional transportation fuel is in the public interest. According to most reputable studies, such use will respond well to many environmental problems caused by gasoline and it will help reduce America’s need to import oil…a continuing security problem.

Epilogue: I once taught a reasonably popular class on policy development and models. To liven up the class, I told the students that economic and policy models are abstractions of reality and to the extent that the models’ abstractions helps students understand reality, they are “good” models. They asked for examples. It was a late evening and I was tired. I told them to go look at the centerpieces in Playboy and Playgirl. Both presented models of airbrushed men and woman. At our next class, I asked the students if the models increased their understanding of men and women. They were bright and eager students, at least for this assignment, and they indicated, “No.” The models tilted too far toward abstractions and too far away from real world experience. They seemed to learn a lesson about the value of at least some models.

The Dennis Prager Show: Breaking Our Oil Addiction With Fuel Freedom

Radio host Dennis Prager speaks to Fuel Freedom Foundation cofounder, Yossie Hollander, about how the organization is planning to end America’s addiction to oil by opening the fuel market to American-made replacement fuels that are cheaper and cleaner. Hollander discusses the alternative fuels, the current regulatory environment and dispels some common myth surrounding the price of oil.