Tuesday, July 21, 2009

How Much Per Gallon?

A book I recently received from a publisher makes an interesting contrast with last Friday's posting on how many cars our current oil production might eventually support. Its title of "$20 Per Gallon" demands attention, though the book proves to be less of an argument for how we might get there than for what things might be like if--the author would say when--we did. Rather than providing detailed arguments for the imminent arrival of Peak Oil, Mr. Steiner essentially accepts that premise and builds on it to offer a set of scenarios describing life in the US at gasoline prices escalating steadily in $2 increments between $4 and $20 per gallon. It makes for an entertaining and sobering set of "what ifs?" Unfortunately, despite a brief author's note dated from February of this year, the book is something of a victim of the collapse of oil prices late last year. While its premise might have been accepted eagerly and unquestioningly last summer, the world looks a bit different today. The challenges he describes appear somewhat less urgent, particularly after oil's recent surge past $70 per barrel was cut short when it turned out that all that talk of "green shoots" might have been a bit premature.

In a sense "$20 Per Gallon" seems like two books, one quite interesting and the other seriously flawed, at least as a document about our energy future. The interesting part lies in the author's exploration of what successively higher energy prices might mean for different aspects of the US economy and lifestyle. True to its subtitle, it's hardly a tale of uniform woe, unless you have the misfortune of working in one of the sectors he concludes is doomed, including anything connected to commercial air travel as we now know it. He points out the environmental, health and safety benefits that might ensue from our responses to progressively dearer petroleum-derived products. Many of these benefits sound quite appealing, though I would propose that they are neither as inevitable nor as neatly tied to oil use as Mr. Steiner suggests. The book is also filled with anecdotes accumulated from his travels researching its subject. I particularly liked his description of the airplane graveyard and his rides in various energy-efficient UPS trucks. If you come to this book already convinced that we are on the precipice of Peak Oil, I suspect you would find most of this not just entertaining, but riveting.

The book is less likely to appeal to anyone who is skeptical about the inevitability of Mr. Steiner's scenario assumptions. Start with his structural choice of using gasoline prices as a proxy for underlying oil prices, despite the fact that petroleum product markets experience supply and demand fluctuations that differ--sometimes markedly--from oil's. This choice also ignores the enormous influence of taxes and other government policies on gas prices. You don't need $300/bbl oil to reach $8 gasoline, as European drivers can attest. Last week the price of the average gallon of gas in the US fell to $2.46/gal., compared to the equivalent of $6.40/gal. in the UK and $6.77/gal. in Germany. The difference is almost entirely due to taxes. Despite this, daily life in those countries is not so far beyond the pale of recent American experience as to frighten small children. The implications of a world of high fuel prices resulting from the combination of moderate oil prices and high taxation look quite different from those arising from oil prices above last summer's peak of $145/bbl.

There's an even bigger issue lurking under the surface, and it relates to the author's conviction that in the long run oil prices can only go higher--much higher--due to Peak Oil. There's at least some truth to that, and I've posted periodically on the enormous difficulties involved in attempting to increase oil production in the face of constraints on access to resources--internationally and domestically--along with high interest rates, scarce capital, chronic project delays, and the inexorable depletion of mature oil fields. But oil prices are determined by more than supply, and while he eagerly describes all of the ways in which we would have to adjust our habits to a world of higher and higher gasoline prices, I don't get the sense that Mr. Steiner has considered the ways in which these responses would tend to retard the steady price advances he describes. We have only to look at the impact that a demand reduction of less than 4% since late 2007 has had on oil prices in the last 12 months. That responsiveness to lower demand is as inherent in a commodity with a steeply-sloped short-run supply curve as were the high prices that accompanied the steadily increasing demand we saw earlier. This behavior reflects two sides of the same coin.

The complexities of the various feedback mechanisms involved would also make some of the positive outcomes that Mr. Steiner sees more uncertain. Consider the drop in traffic fatalities that he posits as a consequence of higher gas prices. While you would generally expect people to drive less if gasoline were much more expensive, that response would probably be less pronounced in the long run than in the short run, because of the other ways in which consumers would react. $4 gasoline is painful if your current automobile gets 20 mpg. However, once you've traded it in on a 50 mpg hybrid, your cost per mile--and thus your monthly fuel bill--is lower even at $6/gal. than it was before at $3.

In addition to these concerns, I noticed a few basic errors and misleading comparisons along the way. Compared to the above, they are nit-picks, but anyone who reads the book ought to bear them in mind. First, Mr. Steiner suggests a pretty dramatic impact from high gasoline prices on all the plastics we consume, without delving deeply enough to determine that most of the ethylene- and propylene-derivative plastics in North America--including Saran Wrap--aren't sourced from oil but from the liquids produced with natural gas. That's a crucial distinction, with vast new gas resources available and with the prices of oil and gas having diverged rather dramatically, at least for now. He also makes several numerical comparisons between the response to last year's oil price spike and the aftermath of the oil crisis of the 1970s without taking into account the 42% increase in US population since 1974.

I have to believe that Mr. Steiner would have written a somewhat different book, had he begun the project this year rather than last. I don't doubt that some of the outcomes he describes are waiting on the sidelines until the economy climbs out of its current trough, even if oil prices don't quite reach the stratospheric heights he expects. For example, it wouldn't take the oil-price equivalent of $8/gal. to trigger a radical restructuring of the airline business, after what's it's been through. At the same time, though, I doubt we've seen the last oil price cycle, and the relationship between the prices of oil and alternative energy sources remains complex and dynamic. In some respects proposals such as cap & trade or a carbon tax are intended to evoke some of the same responses that Mr. Steiner imagines, but on a gradual basis and without having to pay an external supplier for the privilege of motivating us. I suggest reading "$20 Per Barrel" in that spirit, rather than as a firm prediction of the inevitable future of our oil-based world.

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