Oil Price Collapse — Bad News?

In the Washington Post today, staff writer Steven Mufson gets space on the front page to tell us about how the oil price collapse is playing out for oil producers, rival energy generators, and, ultimately, for consumers. Much of what follows is obvious — prices are declining because the economic collapse is hammering demand — but other aspects of the narrative offered by Mufson are on shakier ground.

Ed Morse — managing director and chief economist of LCM Research and a favorite “go-to” guy for print reporters — says, “The last five years saw the rebirth of the use of oil as a critical instrument of foreign policy by key resource countries, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela in particular. With oil and natural gas prices having collapsed, the power of their weapons has been waning rapidly…” Really? When, exactly, have oil-producing states used oil as a weapon in foreign policy over the course of the 2004-2008 price spiral? Have there been embargoes I’ve missed? Strategic production cutbacks tied to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank? Or substantive threats about the same that have been used as an effective lever in international relations? Not that I know of.

The only example I am aware of that Morse might cite to back up his claim is Russia’s ongoing dispute with Ukraine over natural gas prices. But gas producers have leverage in markets that oil producers don’t have, given the much higher transaction costs associated with changing buyer-seller relationships.

In short, Morse’s first claim — that oil producers have been using oil as an effective foreign policy weapon during the boom — is utterly without foundation. His second claim conflates natural gas with oil markets in a manner that muddies the issue. Belief in the “oil weapon” is like belief in UFOs; lots of people claim to have seen such things — and some continue to fear such things — but every attempt at verifying existence has come up empty. The reality is that embargoes can’t deny oil to consuming states given the fungible nature of the international oil market and severe production cutbacks will do far more harm to producers than consumers — which is why we never see those sustained production cutbacks play out.

Next, Mufson implies that energy secretary Steven Chu made some sort of gaffe when he told reporters on Tuesday that OPEC was “not in my domain.” Now, it may be correct that, politically speaking, OPEC is in his “domain,” but the reality is that American pressure on OPEC never has and probably never will have an effect on decisions made by the cartel. OPEC’s aim, after all, is to maximize revenue. Can the U.S. talk OPEC into decisions that will cost OPEC money? Chu’s right to suggest that no mere U.S. energy secretary is capable of such a thing and probably shouldn’t waste much time laboring for such an unlikely end. Bully for Chu — for a few moments at least, he had the courage to say what almost no energy secretary before him has ever dared to say.

Unfortunately, Chu quickly spends his intellectual capital with me in the very next paragraph when he warns that oil prices will likely rise over time. Well, they may, but there is no statistically significant trend toward higher oil prices if we examine quarterly data from 1970 forward. Oil prices move around a lot, but they have always migrated back toward an equilibrium price in the inflation-adjusted mid-$20 range. The belief that oil prices march ever higher over time is widely shared, but has no historical basis.

Chu’s worries about higher prices dovetail with the related warning (this time, from OPEC president Chakib Khelil) that the price respite is only temporary. Soon enough (two years, Khelil says), demand will pick up again and then where will we be? Low oil prices mean cuts in upstream investment which means that, down the road, we’ll get even higher prices than we would have had, had the price collapse never occurred.

Now, it is true that the oil market always has and probably always will move in boom and bust cycles with price spirals and price collapses feeding off one another. But historically, those cycles take a lot longer to play out than a couple of years. We heard the same warning against complacency in 1986 when oil prices went through their last bust cycle — but it wasn’t until 18 years later (2004) that prices recovered and moved into boom cycle once again. And that experience is fairly typical. The time between peaks and valleys in global oil prices run about 20 years apart and have been doing so for over 100 years.

Producers love to warn against low oil prices because, well, they hate them. But the idea that low prices are bad for consumers is one of those things that is so obviously at odds with the reality that one should take such warnings with a heavy block of salt. Domestically, those warnings have been used to justify producer subsidies that fail to pass any reasonable economic test.

Do low oil prices “make it harder for more expensive wind and solar projects to compete,” as Mufson asserts? No. Wind and solar energy does not compete with oil because only a tiny amount of electricity is generated by oil in the United States. Low coal and natural gas prices make it hard for wind and solar to compete. True, fossil fuel prices tend to move roughly in tandem over time, but precision is everything here. Low oil prices do not “cause” natural gas and coal prices to fall and thus do not directly undercut wind and solar.

Finally, what about the dog that’s not barking — that is, what about the claim heard ad infinitum from people like Thomas Friedman and James Woolsey that oil profits are military steroids for Islamic terrorists and that eliminating the same would cut Islamic terrorism off at the knees? So far, we find little evidence that al Qaeda or related groups have been particularly harmed by low oil prices. That shouldn’t surprise — there is no historical correlation between oil prices and Islamic terrorism — whether we’re looking at number of terrorist attacks or fatalities from the same.

[Cross-posted at NRO’s The Corner]