Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Offsets and Behavior

It took a while for US petroleum product demand to respond to high oil prices, but once gasoline neared $4 per gallon in a slowing economy that no longer afforded consumers the opportunity to translate home equity appreciation into purchasing power, it set up the first absolute decline in gasoline use since 1991. But would this response have been so dramatic, if the majority of consumers had already locked in their fuel costs, or hedged them financially? That question has interesting parallels with regard to climate change, for which emissions offsets can provide individuals with a cost-effective temporary alternative to more difficult or expensive changes.

Having just received a renewal notice from my emissions-offset provider, it seemed like a good time to recap my family's fuel consumption for the past year, in order to calculate how much CO2 our two cars emitted. I won't pretend the Styles household is typical in its gasoline consumption. Since neither adult commutes to work, we drive less than the national average. That's just as well, since our cars' fuel economy is nothing special: the station wagon and the sports sedan both get around the national average fuel economy of roughly 22 mpg. Together they consumed 705 gallons of gasoline in the last 12 months.

Tallying our fuel use also provided an opportunity to assess the actual impact of higher fuel prices on our family budget. At an average price increase since last July of 63 cents per gallon, we spent $450 more on gasoline than in the previous year. Although that result fell short of my perceptions, it still represents money we could have spent on other goods and services, or saved. Yet I also knew I couldn't view it isolation, without considering the impact of the natural hedge provided by the oil company stock I retain as a result of my previous employment. Although its performance has been disappointing since oil began its retreat from $145 per barrel, over the last four years it has more than offset the approximately $2 per gallon increase in fuel prices we've experienced. But that isn't just a benefit of being an ex-oil company executive; anyone could have created such a hedge, if they had a spare few thousand dollars to invest.

Four years ago the average US price for regular gasoline stood at $1.90 per gallon. This week it's $3.95. Although its rise has hardly been smooth, that works out to roughly an extra 50 cents per gallon each year, compounded. For a typical car consuming 500 gallons per year, that equates to a cumulative fuel-expense increase of $2,500 over the entire period. As it turns out, $2,900 invested in a fund tracking the Amex Oil Index (XOI), a basket of oil equities, on August 1, 2004 would have grown to $5,750 by now, enough to cover the entire increase in gasoline prices and still pay a 3% return on the principal, though not without significant risk and volatility. Since oil equities are hardly a perfect proxy for fuel prices, a bolder investor might have achieved the same hedge by investing directly in a commodity fund. Alternatively, anyone lacking the capital or the inclination to tie it up this way could have locked in his or her gas purchases using a service such as (I haven't tried it and can't vouch for it in any way; caveat emptor.) And never forget that hedges can lose money; if you hedge but the price falls, you will be worse off than if you had done nothing.

Even without our natural hedge, I doubt that we'd seriously be considering trading in our pair of 4-year-old cars on new, more efficient models, in order to save that $450 per year. We don't drive enough to justify taking the resulting hit on depreciation, even if we doubled our fuel economy. Nor does our desire to reduce our greenhouse emissions alter that calculation by much. The gasoline we've burned since last July produced 7 tons of CO2. Based on the rates charged by TerraPass, we can offset that for $83.30, getting us effectively to zero emissions, rather than the reduction of 1/3 to 1/2 we might expect from newer, thriftier cars--and at a much lower cost.

Now, I've heard all the arguments about "buying indulgences" instead of making real changes in our lifestyles. Although my family has effectively negated the personal impact of higher oil prices and our vehicles' CO2 emissions, the world as a whole might be better off if we had bought a pair of hybrids, instead. However, that argument contains two fallacies, one arising from the inappropriate application of a pollution mindset to greenhouse gases, and the other reflecting the limited supply of highly fuel-efficient cars and the benefit of allocating them first to the highest-intensity users. As long as my offset provider is really investing in projects that truly reduce emissions--emissions that are equivalent in impact regardless of where on the planet they occur, and that wouldn't be cut otherwise--then for less than $100 per year we have the climate equivalent of two EVs running on wind power, minus their cachet. And we aren't competing for a hybrid with someone who drives 20,000 miles per year.

That isn't an excuse for perpetual indulgence, of course. When we do buy new cars, they will be much more efficient: diesels or hybrids, at least. And if the US hasn't enacted economy-wide cap & trade or carbon taxation by then, we'd pay to offset the remaining emissions. Similar calculations by millions of Americans may help to explain the fuel economy inertia of the US vehicle fleet, and why it will only improve incrementally within the next five years, no matter how efficient the new-car fleet becomes.

No comments: