Monday, January 31, 2005

Is "Geo-Green" The Answer?
Despite my usual soft spot for Tom Friedman and his normally insightful and bold commentary on geopolitics, his editorial in Sunday's New York Times oversimplified a bit too far with its "Geo-Green" energy strategy. Although he neatly describes the paucity of options for dissuading Iran's leaders from pursuing nuclear weapons (see Friday's posting) his prescription for reforming Iran and the rest of the Middle East by driving the price of oil back down to $18 per barrel rests on a shaky foundation.

Based on past oil market behavior, getting oil prices back to this level any time soon would probably require a combination of reduced global demand or increased global production on the order of 4 million barrels per day (MBD). Half of this volume represents a return to OPEC's recent "normal" quota of 25 MBD from its current, essentially flat-out quota of 27 MBD, while the other half mirrors the magnitude of demand drop that sent oil markets into free fall in the 1997 Asian Economic Crisis.

Although some new production will come on stream this year, most of the difference would have to come from the demand side, where Mr. Friedman's "geo-green" options of conservation and substitution via renewables and nuclear power reside. Since most petroleum is used for mobility, while most electricity is used for stationary purposes, the impact of renewables and nuclear on oil demand is fairly indirect and long-term. This leaves us with conservation, which is normally spurred by high prices--at least initially--rather than the low prices Mr. Friedman hopes to achieve. This is something of a paradox, unless he is willing to consider hefty new taxes on petroleum products to raise consumer prices without changing producer prices.

Even if I've overstated what it would take to drive oil prices down, there are other factors to consider. Although a low oil price world would benefit the US economy, along with some of the poorest nations on the planet, it would reduce the incentives to find more oil and to develop the technologies that must ultimately supplant oil. Along these lines, I suspect the likeliest precursor to another period of low oil prices will be the market itself. Petroleum is still a volatile and somewhat cyclical commodity, and the market has a history of confounding expectations. Unfortunately for Mr. Friedman's thesis, the last period of $18 oil prices in the late 1990s didn't exactly unleash a tide of liberalization in the Middle East.

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