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“Hooked On Oil”: No Magic Bullet For The Price Of Gas

As they ruminate at the pump, Americans may have finally figured out the new global deal on gasoline: there’s no magic bullet to bring prices down as long as the United States remains hooked on oil.

No matter how many billions of dollars oil companies rake in, the world market, not individual oil producers, sets the price of oil. Likewise, there is little, if anything, U.S. presidents—or their political opponents—can do to ward off $4 per gallon gasoline.

The reality is that oil supply concerns in Iran, Nigeria, and other trouble spots married with heightened oil demand in China, India, and other burgeoning nations will largely determine what Americans pay for gasoline. We can drill doggedly in our own backyards, but the price of gasoline will remain more a matter of speculation over externally-driven factors than tapping new sources of oil at home.

America is at an oil crossroads, emotionally and financially. We can continue griping about gasoline and maintain false hopes of controlling crude oil prices. Or we can face the truth, stop subsidizing oil with hard-earned taxpayer dollars, and abandon extreme efforts in search of new oil supplies. Surviving $4 gasoline depends on sipping oil and providing fuel substitutes, not subsidizing and promoting petroleum production.

As the world’s largest oil consumer, home to a transportation system that is a whopping 94 percent dependent on oil, the United States is precariously positioned. Conventional thinking—the more we drill at home, the better off we’ll be—is dangerously misguided. No matter where in the world oil is found, the price is tied to the global market.

Moreover, much of the heavier new oil supplies found in the western hemisphere yield diesel and fuel oil that is destined primarily for export markets. New heavier oils are not well suited for consumption by American cars and jets. So drilling closer to home will do much more to pad the oil industry’s deep pockets than bring down prices at the pump.

Since business-as-usual isn’t likely the answer, and may make matters worse, it’s time for unconventional thinking.

America is desperately in need of an oil policy that reduces dependence on petroleum, regardless of the source. The more fuel efficient our cars become and the faster we diversify into new transportation fuels, the brighter our energy and economic future will be.

President Obama already set in motion the first part of the solution. Tomorrow’s cars and trucks will consume less fuel than those they replace. And despite rising gas prices—or perhaps because of it—automakers’ new vehicle line-ups contain some of the most fuel-efficient vehicles in industry history.

In the next five years, new cars and trucks will use 20 percent less fuel per mile driven. And by 2025, new cars will average about 50 miles per gallon, nearly double levels initially mandated for 1985. Sticking to the president’s plan, or even accelerating it, will be key.

But there is much more to be done. America can no longer rely on oil alone to fuel mobility. We need to step up the transition to oil alternatives by moving to hybrid-electric and electric vehicles, and using advanced biofuels.

Electricity can be generated by a diverse array of clean energy sources, leaving oil out of the power mix. And biofuels can be made from many different nonoil sources, including algae, grasses, woody crops, wastes, and various other nonfood feed stocks.

High gasoline prices help motivate the shift away from oil. But a market transformation will take direct policy action, for example, through a price stabilizing oil security fee or other fiscal measures. Oil is entrenched in America. Moving away from perpetual oil dependence to a robust, diversified fuel system will take clear, enduring policy action.

Americans are justifiably anxious about what the future holds when it comes to gasoline prices. But many motorists are beginning to appreciate that anger over pump prices will not relieve pain at the pump. Nor will political promises.

Oil markets have globalized to the point where prices are beyond our control. Given oil’s dangerous monopoly power over our mobility, it’s time to entirely reinvent our habits, innovate technologically, and adopt bold new policies aimed at reducing the use of oil and substituting instead of subsidizing and searching for oil. This is how America will ultimately survive $4 gasoline.

 

By: Deborah Gordon, U. S. News and World Report, March 22, 2012

March 23, 2012 Posted by | Energy, Oil Industry | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Dishonest Craven Panderer”: Mitt Romney Joins Gas Price Demagoguery

For someone running for office on the strength of his knowledge and experience in the free-market economy, Mitt Romney sure is spouting a lot of ignorant nonsense. Romney has used the same epithet—“doesn’t understand the economy”—against both President Obama and Newt Gingrich.

But Romney is contradicting basic economic facts on the campaign trail this week. He has adopted Gingrich’s demagogic strategy of blaming President Obama for rising gas prices. On Sunday Romney told Fox News there is “no question” Obama’s policies are responsible for prices at the pump. “He said that energy prices would skyrocket under his views, and he selected three people to help him implement that program. The secretary of energy, the secretary of interior and EPA administrator. And this gas hike trio has been doing the job over the last three-and-a-half years, and gas prices are up.” Romney has repeated those comments at campaign events on Sunday and Monday.

Romney, of course, is pulling a bait-and-switch when he claims Obama stated a goal of raising gas prices. Obama did say that his cap-and-trade proposal would raise prices of electricity, which Romney conflates with gasoline by collectively lumping them as energy. But cap-and-trade did not pass. Romney fails to specify which policies Obama has enacted that have raised the price of petroleum, because there aren’t any. The only argument Republicans such as Romney and Gingrich can muster is that Obama has rejected some proposals to drill for oil or build pipelines in environmentally precarious locations.

Aggregate domestic oil drilling has actually risen under Obama. But that doesn’t matter. Suppose it had declined. Oil is a global, fungible commodity. As demand increases in industrializing nations such as China and India, prices are sure to rise eventually. Global supply of oil is finite, so there is no way that global demand can increase indefinitely without prices going up.

You’d think from listening to Romney and Gingrich that they were ideological fellow travelers of Hugo Chávez. After all, their proposal to reduce American gas prices would help only if we nationalized the oil industry. If we continue to operate as a free-market economy, then ExxonMobil will sell the oil they drill here to the highest bidder, not necessarily the American consumer.

Even if we did nationalize the oil industry, increased drilling would have a limited impact on prices. We account for about 25 percent of global annual oil consumption, while we have only 2 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves.

So there are two possibilities: either Romney doesn’t understand how the economy works, or he is just a dishonest craven panderer. Considering that he holds two advanced degrees from Harvard, counts on Harvard professors as economic and foreign policy advisers and cites Harvard professors in his speeches—while bashing Obama for “taking advice from the Harvard faculty lounge”—my guess is that the answer is the latter.

 

By: Ben Adler, The Nation, March 20, 2012

March 21, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012, Energy | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Natural Born Drillers”: Republicans Are Just Plain “Full Of Gas”

To be a modern Republican in good standing, you have to believe — or pretend to believe — in two miracle cures for whatever ails the economy: more tax cuts for the rich and more drilling for oil. And with prices at the pump on the rise, so is the chant of “Drill, baby, drill.” More and more, Republicans are telling us that gasoline would be cheap and jobs plentiful if only we would stop protecting the environment and let energy companies do whatever they want.

Thus Mitt Romney claims that gasoline prices are high not because of saber-rattling over Iran, but because President Obama won’t allow unrestricted drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Meanwhile, Stephen Moore of The Wall Street Journal tells readers that America as a whole could have a jobs boom, just like North Dakota, if only the environmentalists would get out of the way.

The irony here is that these claims come just as events are confirming what everyone who did the math already knew, namely, that U.S. energy policy has very little effect either on oil prices or on overall U.S. employment. For the truth is that we’re already having a hydrocarbon boom, with U.S. oil and gas production rising and U.S. fuel imports dropping. If there were any truth to drill-here-drill-now, this boom should have yielded substantially lower gasoline prices and lots of new jobs. Predictably, however, it has done neither.

Why the hydrocarbon boom? It’s all about the fracking. The combination of horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing of shale and other low-permeability rocks has opened up large reserves of oil and natural gas to production. As a result, U.S. oil production has risen significantly over the past three years, reversing a decline over decades, while natural gas production has exploded.

Given this expansion, it’s hard to claim that excessive regulation has crippled energy production. Indeed, reporting in The Times makes it clear that U.S. policy has been seriously negligent — that the environmental costs of fracking have been underplayed and ignored. But, in a way, that’s the point. The reality is that far from being hobbled by eco-freaks, the energy industry has been given a largely free hand to expand domestic oil and gas production, never mind the environment.

Strange to say, however, while natural gas prices have dropped, rising oil production and a sharp fall in import dependence haven’t stopped gasoline prices from rising toward $4 a gallon. Nor has the oil and gas boom given a noticeable boost to an economic recovery that, despite better news lately, has been very disappointing on the jobs front.

As I said, this was totally predictable.

First up, oil prices. Unlike natural gas, which is expensive to ship across oceans, oil is traded on a world market — and the big developments moving prices in that market usually have little to do with events in the United States. Oil prices are up because of rising demand from China and other emerging economies, and more recently because of war scares in the Middle East; these forces easily outweigh any downward pressure on prices from rising U.S. production. And the same thing would happen if Republicans got their way and oil companies were set free to drill freely in the Gulf of Mexico and punch holes in the tundra: the effect on prices at the pump would be negligible.

Meanwhile, what about jobs? I have to admit that I started laughing when I saw The Wall Street Journal offering North Dakota as a role model. Yes, the oil boom there has pushed unemployment down to 3.2 percent, but that’s only possible because the whole state has fewer residents than metropolitan Albany — so few residents that adding a few thousand jobs in the state’s extractive sector is a really big deal. The comparable-sized fracking boom in Pennsylvania has had hardly any effect on the state’s overall employment picture, because, in the end, not that many jobs are involved.

And this tells us that giving the oil companies carte blanche isn’t a serious jobs program. Put it this way: Employment in oil and gas extraction has risen more than 50 percent since the middle of the last decade, but that amounts to only 70,000 jobs, around one-twentieth of 1 percent of total U.S. employment. So the idea that drill, baby, drill can cure our jobs deficit is basically a joke.

Why, then, are Republicans pretending otherwise? Part of the answer is that the party is rewarding its benefactors: the oil and gas industry doesn’t create many jobs, but it does spend a lot of money on lobbying and campaign contributions. The rest of the answer is simply the fact that conservatives have no other job-creation ideas to offer.

And intellectual bankruptcy, I’m sorry to say, is a problem that no amount of drilling and fracking can solve.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, March 15, 2012

March 18, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Invested In Economic Failure”: The GOP Plans To Sink The Economy

We’re just under eight months away from Election Day now, which means that the GOP is starting to run out of time to think up new ways to ruin the economy so that Barack Obama doesn’t get reelected. The Republicans have to do this delicately, of course; they can’t be open about it lest it become too obvious that harming the economy is their goal. But they have to be aggressive enough about it for their efforts to bear some actual (rotten) fruit. There are three fronts—gas prices, jobs, and the budget—on which we should keep our eyes open for signs that the Republicans are trying to achieve Mitch McConnell’s No. 1 goal for America.

Let’s take them in order. The Republicans received joyous news Monday in the form of the Washington Post poll that showed Obama’s numbers sinking in inverse proportion to rising gas prices. The gas situation is perfect for the GOP for two reasons. First, there’s very little a president can actually do about gas prices. Second, even though those prices don’t really tell us much about the more general economy, most people have the impression that they do, so for the out-party, it’s just a free whack.

No one can blame Republicans for using Obama as a piñata on the issue. But here’s what they can be blamed for. What is causing these high prices? Not low supply and high demand, which is what they teach you in school. In fact, supply is high—domestic oil production is at its highest point in years, higher under this allegedly business-hating president than under oilmen Bush and Cheney. And demand has been low because of the economy, although it’s now picking up.

No, experts blame a lot of the increase on fervid speculation in the oil markets, and a chief reason for a lot of that speculation is anxiety in those markets about a possible war with Iran. Said anxiety, in turn, is heightened every time a politician blusters about how we have no choice now but to go start that war. So this kind of rhetoric is a nice little two-fer for Republicans, who get to sound like tough guys and can also take comfort in knowing that the more they talk up attacking Iran, the more they’re doing their small part to keep prices high.

Now let’s look to jobs. As you may know, while we’ve been getting these hopeful job reports these last few months, there is one sector that’s been lagging notably: the public sector. In fact, during 2011 the public sector across the country—state and local governments, in addition to the feds—laid off massive numbers of people. Public-sector job losses averaged 22,000 a month in 2011. State and municipal governments are laying people off mainly for two reasons: the economy, which means they’re bringing in less revenue, and the drastic cuts in federal aid, which have forced the layoffs and firings of nearly half a million public-sector workers in the last two years.

True, Republicans want smaller budgets on ideological grounds. But they also know very well that the more domestic discretionary spending cuts they can force, and the more public employees they can make states and cities shave off their payrolls, the greater the negative effect on the overall employment picture. If those nearly half-million people were still working, what would the unemployment rate be? Maybe down to a flat 8 percent.

Lately, though, things are starting to look worrisome on that front for Republicans. In February, the public sector cut just 6,000 workers, well down from last year’s average. This indicates that the party might not be able to count for long on the public-sector numbers dragging down the private-sector ones. Hmmm. What to do about that?

Interestingly and conveniently, exactly what the Republicans on Capitol Hill are doing right now! They have been signaling lately that the budget numbers they agreed to with Democrats last year in the debt deal need to be revisited, and the cuts must be even deeper. Speaker John Boehner is open about the possibility of reneging. He has sent some mixed signals—he’s also talked about trying to get the House to accept a transportation bill that the Senate has already passed by the eye-poppingly bipartisan margin of 85–11. New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer says the bill can create 3 million jobs. The House returns to Washington next Monday. Where would you put the odds that this House of Representatives will vote, less than eight months before the election, to support a bill that Chuck Schumer boasts can produce 3 million jobs?

Every out-party does a little discreet cheering for the economy to be weak. But the GOP has put itself in a unique position. By opposing everything Obama wanted with such ferocity; by saying all those thousands of times that he had no clue about the economy; by sending out a parade of presidential candidates, from the semi-serious to the clown posse, all of whose central criticism of Obama is that he killed the economy—in all of these ways the party has more invested in economic failure than any out-party I can remember in my lifetime. Its best hope for now is gas prices, but even they eventually get lower, usually by late summer. Beyond that, all the GOP has to rely on is Mitt Romney’s unstoppable charisma.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, March 13, 2012

March 14, 2012 Posted by | Economic Recovery, Election 2012 | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Gas Prices Aren’t Likely To Decide The 2012 Election

This morning’s Washington Post-ABC poll shows that President Obama’s poll numbers are falling in tandem with rising gas prices. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they disapprove of how he’s handling the situation at the pump. Could gas prices end up swaying the 2012 election after all?

It’s hard to rule anything out, but evidence remains thin that gasoline will be a determining factor in November. While Americans love to grumble about expensive gasoline — and with good reason — political science research suggests that it’s not the main thing that shifts votes. Nate Silver, for one, has found that “there’s not a lot of evidence that oil prices are all that important” a factor in presidential elections. Nor do gasoline prices necessarily dictate the public’s view of the White House: Back during George W. Bush’s presidency, there was a much-linked graph showing his approval ratings climbing and dipping in lockstep with gas prices. But subsequent analysis by political scientist Brendan Nyhan showed that the correlation was just a “statistical artifact.”

The more severe worry for Obama, at this point, is that soaring gas prices could stomp on the nascent economic recovery. The way this typically happens is that pricey gasoline starts crimping the checkbooks of U.S. consumers, who then have less money to spend on other things. (In the Post-ABC poll, most respondents said they were already feeling the pinch.) That leads to slower growth. And slower growth, political scientists agree, really can sink a presidency. As Silver puts it, “higher gas prices are important to the extent that they affect things like G.D.P., inflation and unemployment. But there isn’t evidence that they matter above and beyond that.”

That said, it’s not yet clear whether oil prices actually will crush the current recovery. There’s certainly reason for concern: James Hamilton, an economist at UC San Diego, has found that most U.S. recessions since World War II have been preceded by a sharp run-up in oil prices. But, oddly enough, one person who isn’t gloomy about our current predicament is Hamilton himself. “I find myself in the unusual position,” he recently wrote, “of being less concerned about the impact of oil prices on the U.S. economy than many other analysts.” Hamilton notes that, for now, oil prices are simply moving back to 2011 levels. And price increases that simply reverse earlier declines are less harmful than historic new highs.

For instance, high oil prices have historically inflicted disproportionate harm on the U.S. economy by leading to a cut-back in sales of SUVs and other inefficient vehicles that Detroit has long specialized in. But this time around, he notes, sales are holding steady — perhaps because U.S. automakers have shifted to selling fuel-efficient models. Moreover, low natural gas prices, a warm winter, and improved fuel efficiency have helped insulate U.S. consumers from pricey oil to date. Overall energy expenditures are actually down this year. Americans have been grappling with expensive oil for several years now, and they appear to be adapting.

That should come as a quiet relief to most incumbent politicians. Because the unsatisfying reality is that there’s not a whole lot the White House or Congress can actually do to lower gasoline prices. Oil prices are skyrocketing because global crude supplies remain tight and tensions with Iran are making traders skittish about a possible conflict in a crucial oil-producing region. If Obama could figure out a way to calm down the situation with Iran, that might cause crude prices to settle back down.

But apart from that, options are limited. More domestic drilling won’t bring back $2.50-per-gallon gas, as Newt Gingrich has suggested — oil prices are dictated by the vast world market, of which U.S. production is just a small fraction. The still-in-limbo Keystone XL pipeline is just as likely to raise gasoline prices in the Midwest as anything else. Cracking down on “financial speculators,” as many Democrats have called for, isn’t particularly promising, as many oil traders simply appear to be following fundamentals. And, judging by past experience, releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve won’t offer much more than very short-lived relief. Meanwhile, Americans are becoming significantly more oil efficient, but that’s a slow, painstaking process.

That won’t stop politicians from talking about the issue. And it won’t stop Americans from expressing their disapproval. But those are two very different things from swaying an election.

Update: Here’s another notable aspect of the Post-ABC poll to consider, pointed out to me by Third Way’s Josh Freed. At the moment, 63 percent of Americans say that gas prices are causing them financial hardship, with 36 percent saying the gas squeeze is causing “serious” financial hardship. (See Question 11.) But those are actually the lowest hardship numbers since May of 2008 — and, in fact, it’s virtually identical to what Americans were saying in May of 2004, six months before George W. Bush won re-election.

 

By: Brad Plumer, The Washington Post, March 12, 2012

March 13, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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