Friday, February 24, 2012

How Helpless Are We in the Face of Rising Oil Prices?

Oil is rarely not political, and with gasoline prices hitting record levels early in a presidential election year, we shouldn't be surprised that both the President and his challengers have focused on energy policy. President Obama gave what was billed as a major speech on energy at the University of Miami in Florida yesterday. After urging more students to study engineering--a sentiment I would strongly second--he laid out his view of the situation and its solutions. He got a lot right, including the long-term nature of the problem and the value of improving the efficiency of our vehicle fleet. But unfortunately, he also missed the mark in many ways and generally reflected the exaggerated fatalism that his administration has consistently exhibited towards oil prices. Boosting domestic supply is not the only answer, but it could be far more effective in moderating high oil prices and their impact on the economy than the President admitted.

To see why requires a sense of how the oil market works, as well as the uses to which we put oil today, rather than a generation ago. For starters, although the President has worked hard to improve conditions for renewable energy sources like wind and solar power--sources that certainly have an important role to play in our long-term energy mix--these technologies, along with nuclear power, are out of place in a conversation about oil prices in 2012. That's because they produce electricity rather than liquid fuels, and less than 1% of US electricity is generated from oil today, compared to more than 10% in 1980. Electricity from renewable and nuclear power doesn't compete with imported oil or any other kind of oil; it competes with domestic energy sources like coal and natural gas, most of which now comes from conventional and unconventional gas fields, rather than as a byproduct of producing oil. So by all means lets have a conversation about renewables in the context of reducing greenhouse gas emissions today and displacing oil from transportation when there are tens of millions of electric vehicles on the road in the future, but in terms of oil prices now and in the near future, they are a rhetorical diversion.

Fuel efficiency and plain old conservation can play an important role in reducing both our exposure to higher oil prices and in contributing to lower prices, because both attack demand directly, and demand is a big factor in oil prices. The President is right to emphasize this. Americans have cut back on oil consumption to the tune of 1.8 million barrels per day since 2007, and this was a significant factor in the oil price collapse in late 2008 and the generally lower prices we've enjoyed since then. Unfortunately, that happened largely as a result of the recession and financial crisis, rather than a sudden spike in fuel efficiency. If Americans buy the new, more efficient cars that Detroit must make under the administration's stricter Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, then over the next decades the efficiency of the US car fleet will improve significantly, and even after rebound effects our oil demand and need for imported oil should fall. But let's not delude ourselves that this can happen overnight. There are roughly 250 million cars, SUVs and light trucks on the road in the US today, and even at pre-recession sales levels it will take more than a decade to turn over enough of them to make a serious dent in oil consumption.

President Obama made only a passing reference to biofuels in his speech, and for good reason. At current production levels ethanol displaces up to 600,000 bbl/day of petroleum gasoline, after adjusting for its lower energy content. That's good, but we've essentially played that card already and can't play it again. Almost all the gasoline sold in the US today contains 10% ethanol, the maximum level that most cars can tolerate without damaging their fuel systems or voiding their warranties. There's little appetite among consumers for the 85% ethanol E85 blend that flexible fuel vehicles can use, and there's even less appetite among fuel distributors for the 15% ethanol blend that the EPA blessed in 2010. With ethanol maxed out for now, our focus must shift to biofuels that are much more compatible with gasoline and diesel fuel, and that rely on technologies that haven't yet been demonstrated at commercial scale or competitive cost.

And that brings us back to the potential for reducing our dependence on oil imports and moderating oil prices by producing more domestic oil. Now, it's certainly true that US oil production and consumption are only part of a much larger global oil market, where prices are actually set. The US couldn't control the global price of oil, as it once did, even if we imported virtually no oil from outside North America. However, it's simply not correct to gauge the potential impact of an extra million bbl/day of US production--a figure that is well within the range of what a more aggressive domestic drilling program could deliver--by comparing it to the entire global output of nearly 90 million bbl/day. As with other commodities like grain and coffee, the price of oil is determined by relatively small changes in supply, demand, inventories, and in the case of oil, spare capacity. What really counts is the last few million barrels per day that are traded, whether inventories are rising or falling, and how large global spare capacity is and who owns it. The last three times that oil prices collapsed, in the mid-1980s, late-1990s, and 2008, it happened as a result of net changes in these parameters amounting to less than about 3 million bbl/day.

Yesterday the President cited statistics indicating that US oil production has returned to levels we hadn't seen for several years. That's true, and it's equally true that this modest surge of about 14% is the result of factors over which his administration had no control: oil prices and federal policies in the previous administration and the application of improved drilling technologies in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico and onshore locations like North Dakota's Bakken formation and the Eagle Ford shale of Texas. Moreover, it's only technically accurate to state that he has "opened millions of acres for oil and gas exploration", when the lease sales in question were originally scheduled to have taken place earlier, and were to have encompassed much more acreage, including offshore acreage that has been off limits for decades, such as offshore Virginia. The Deepwater Horizon accident certainly changed the context for the President's previous drilling plans, but his administration's responsibility for the subsequent decline in offshore production, the slower pace of development and tighter geographic constraints on where the industry can look for oil since then must be acknowledged in this discussion.

Then there's that other shibboleth of oil prices, speculation, which was also mentioned yesterday. As I've discussed previously, there are times when speculation can increase some oil prices, at least for a brief period. However, it's worth recalling that for every trader buying futures contracts or options in hopes they will go even higher, some seller must take the position that current prices are high enough and likely to be lower, later. This adds a froth of sentiment to the market, but it can't sustain prices for long if fundamentals aren't supportive and if the physical market doesn't follow. So while politicians see a $10/bbl rise this month in the price of West Texas Intermediate on the futures market as a symptom of speculation, they tend to ignore data like the much larger recent increase in the spot price for Louisiana Light Sweet crude, for which someone must take physical delivery at St. James, Louisiana, rather than just offsetting against another "paper barrel". When you look at physical oil inventories, there's no evidence that speculators are taking delivery of large quantities of oil and storing it so refiners can't buy it.

The key factors driving the recent increase in oil prices are tensions with Iran and the fact that, with production off-line in places like Sudan and still not back to pre-revolution levels in Libya, OPEC's effective spare capacity is below 3 million bbl/day, not much above the level that contributed greatly to oil's near-$150 peak in mid-2008. So despite relatively weak demand growth, the market looks tight now, with the prospect of Iran cutting off sales--or being embargoed via sanctions from buyers--by a volume that would erode that cushion of spare capacity in Saudi Arabia and a few other Persian Gulf producers even further--capacity that mostly sits inside the Strait of Hormuz.

So what levers does this President--or any President--really have with which to try to moderate oil prices over the next few years? It's clearly not renewable energy policy at this point. It could include foreign policy, particularly if you agree with the view of Washington Post columnist David Ignatius that Iran has displayed a clear pattern of backing down in the face of "overwhelming force". Resolving the Iranian threat to Gulf shipping and setting the outlines of a solution to Iran's nuclear program could take $20/bbl off the price of oil in fairly short order, though I wouldn't suggest that looks easy. Yet even though a decision to expand access to US oil resources significantly, along the lines of the President's pre-Deepwater Horizon plan, would not deliver new production quickly, it's wrong to be dismissive about the impact of more drilling on prices or in mitigating the impact of those prices on the economy. And in the case of onshore opportunities for which infrastructure is already in place or in the works--and here I would include the Keystone XL pipeline--it need not take 10 years for the first barrels to reach market. Together with a strong, technology-neutral effort on fuel economy, a new, more expansive approach to exploiting domestic resources would affect the back end of the futures price curve, and that could start to nudge down nearer-term prices, as well. Even if I'm wrong about that, it's still the case that at current prices every additional 1,000 bbl/day we produce here would reduce our trade deficit and the drag on our economy by about $40 million--and there are a lot more thousands of barrels per day we could be producing.

At least one of the President's potential challengers has described a plan for getting gas prices back to $2.50 per gallon. Perhaps this had something to do with President Obama's choice of topic yesterday. I will devote a lot more time to analyzing such proposals once the Republicans have chosen their nominee. However, it's worth noting that as outlandish as $2.50/gal. sounds when the average price of unleaded regular has jumped to $3.59/gal. this week, it works out to an effective crude price of around $70/bbl, after subtracting state and federal taxes and refiner and dealer margins. That's roughly what oil cost in 2006 and 2007 and more than in 2009. It's also a higher price than most oil industry experts even imagined would be possible just a few years earlier.

I don't know if Mr. Gingrich's plan would work, and I suspect that the economics of at least some of the new production necessary to force OPEC to compete on price again, rather than managing the price to suit their own needs, might be challenging at $70/bbl. Yet I'd be much more inclined for us to work towards such a goal than to dismiss it as impossible or irrelevant and fatalistically accept the consequences of $100+ oil for another decade or more. The President should at least be as open to these possibilities as he is to the possibilities of renewable energy for reducing emissions.

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