After a couple of months during which larger issues were grabbing headlines, the Keystone XL pipeline is back in the news again.
Recall that in the fall of 2011, Congress attempted to force the Obama Administration to come to some sort of a decision on the pipeline—a project that would deliver oil from Canada’s Alberta tar sands to a pipeline junction in Steel City, Nebraska and then ultimately on to refineries in Illinois and along the Gulf Coast. President Obama rejected the pipeline application in January 2012, citing the Congressional deadline as being too tight to allow for a thorough assessment. TransCanada Corporation, the pipeline’s operator, last September proposed a new route through Nebraska which avoided the environmentally sensitive Sand Hills region which was one the largest local environmental concerns of the originally proposed pipeline route.
The rumors were that this new proposed route, and the promise of new jobs and economic activity, were now tipping the administration in favor of the giving the go ahead to the pipeline.
Last Wednesday, the New York Post reported that EPA head Lisa Jackson (a vocal opponent of the pipeline) was stepping down in a huff because she was convinced that Obama was soon going to green-light the project.
Last Friday, Nebraska’s Department of Environmental Quality released its study of the new route and proclaimed that it could have “minimal environmental impacts in Nebraska” if properly managed and that construction of the pipeline would result in “$418.1 million in economic benefits and would support up to 4,560 new or existing jobs in the state,” (though some jobs would be temporary) and annual local property tax revenues of between “11 million and 13 million” for the first year of evaluation. The U.S. State Department is conducting its own report because the pipeline will cross the U.S./Canada border. That report is expected any day now.
Yesterday, a group of protestors stormed the TransCanada offices in Houston, Tx, chaining their ankles, and for added measure, apparently supergluing their hands together. A statement from the group said that they were “representatives of a desperate generation who have been forced into this position by the reckless and immoral behavior of fossil fuel corporations such as Transcanada.” Bill McKibben’s 350.org is organizing a much larger-scale protest for Washington, D.C., and the White House next month.
The outcry is not really about local environmental concerns, but as NASA’s James Hansen (who himself was arrested outside the White House back in 2011 protesting the pipeline) put it, if the pipeline is built it will be “game over” for the climate.
With all this outcry, just how bad for the climate do you think the pipeline (or rather it contents) will be?
The most important development this week in Latin America is the decision of the Argentine government to seize control of Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales (YPF), the country’s largest oil company. On Monday, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner announced the expropriation of the controlling stake of YPF that is owned by the Spanish company Repsol. The Spanish government, backed by the European Union, has announced that it will take retaliatory measures against Argentina, noting that “all options are on the table.” The Economist Intelligence Unit has a very good analysis on the case and the implications for Argentina.
The big question after Fernandez’s overwhelming reelection last fall was whether she would deepen the economic model she and her late husband (and predecessor) implemented since arriving to power in 2003—marked by high government spending, tight economic controls on industries, and selective nationalizations of businesses—or instead change course given the growing signs of exhaustion: high inflation, growing fiscal deficit, increasing capital flight, fall in foreign direct investment, the weakening peso, etc.
Any doubt is now gone. With the nationalization of YPF, Argentina firmly joins Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia in the club of Latin American nations that espouse high-octane economic populism. In the upcoming months, we can expect more protectionist measures, further controls on the economy and, once the government runs out of the money that it seized in the past three years from the private pension funds and the Central Bank’s reserves, we should not be surprised if it moves to take control of the banks.
Things will only get worse for Argentina.
Iran this week punctuated 10 days of naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz and threats to close it with a warning to U.S. Navy ships to stay out of the Persian Gulf, which requires passage through the strait. The tough talk may have temporarily juiced oil prices, but it failed to impress militarily. Recent news reports have cited U.S. military officials, defense analysts, and even an anonymous Iranian official arguing that Iran likely lacks the will and ability to block shipping in the strait. That argument isn’t new: Iran’s economy depends on shipments through the strait, and the U.S. Navy can keep it open, if need be. What’s more, the Iranians might be deterred by the fear that a skirmish over the strait would give U.S. or Israeli leaders an excuse to attack their nuclear facilities.
The obviousness of Iran’s bluster suggests its weakness. Empty threats generally show desperation, not security. And Iran’s weakness is not confined to water. Though Iran is more populous and wealthier than most of its neighbors, its military isn’t equipped for conquest. Like other militaries in its region, Iran’s suffers from coup-proofing, the practice of designing a military more to prevent coups than to fight rival states. Economic problems and limited weapons-import options have also undermined its ability to modernize its military, while its rivals buy American arms.
Here’s how Eugene Gholz and Daryl Press summarize Iran’s conventional military capability:
Iran … lacks the equipment and training for major offensive ground operations. Its land forces, comprising two separate armies (the Artesh and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), are structured to prevent coups and to wage irregular warfare, not to conquer neighbors. Tehran’s air force is antiquated, and its navy is suited for harassment missions, not large amphibious operations across the Gulf. Furthermore, a successful invasion is not enough to monopolize a neighbor’s oil resources; a protracted occupation would be required. But the idea of a sustainable and protracted Persian Shi’a occupation of any Gulf Arab society—even a Shi’a-majority one like Bahrain—is far-fetched.
Despite Iran’s weakness, most U.S. political rhetoric—and more importantly, most U.S. policy—treat it as a potential regional hegemon that imperils U.S. interests. Pundits eager to bash President Obama for belatedly allowing U.S. troops to leave Iraq say it will facilitate Iran’s regional dominance. The secretary of defense, who says the war in Iraq was worth fighting, wants to station 40,000 troops in the region to keep Iran from meddling there. Even opponents of bombing Iran to prevent it from building nuclear weapons regularly opine on how to “contain” it, as if that required great effort.
Some will object to this characterization of Iran’s capabilities, claiming that asymmetric threats—missiles, the ability to harass shipping, and nasty friends on retainer in nearby states—let it punch above its military weight. But from the American perspective—a far-off power with a few discrete interests in the region—these are complications, not major problems. Our self-induced ignorance about Iran’s limited military capabilities obscures the fact that we can defend those interests against even a nuclear Iran at far lower cost than we now expend. We could do so from the sea.
The United States has two basic interests in the region. The first is to prevent oil price spikes large enough to cause economic trouble. Although it’s not clear that an oil price shock would greatly damage the U.S. economy, we don’t want to chance it. That is why it makes sense to tell Iran that we will forcibly keep the strait open.
Iranian nuclear weapons would merely complicate our efforts to do so. For safety, both naval ships clearing mines there and tankers would want Iranian shores cleared of anti-ship cruise missiles and their radars, although doing so is probably not necessary to keep strait cargo moving. The possibility of nuclear escalation makes attacking those shore-based targets tougher. But the risk of escalation is mostly Iran’s. By attacking U.S. ships, Iran would risk annihilation or a disarming first strike. Given that, it is hard to see how nuclear weapons make closing the strait easier.
The second U.S. goal in the region is to prevent any state from gathering enough oil wealth to extort us or build a military big enough to menace us. The vastness of our military advantage over any combination of Middle Eastern states makes that fairly easy to prevent. The difficulty of Iran credibly threatening to stop exporting the chief source of its wealth makes the problem even smaller. Indeed, the odds of Iran becoming an oil super-state by conquest are so low that we probably do not need to guarantee any nearby state’s security to prevent it. For example, if Iran swallowed and magically pacified Iraq, the resulting state, while a bad thing, would create little obvious danger for American safety or commerce. Still, if we did defend Iraq’s borders, carrier-based air power along with Iraqi ground forces would probably suffice to stop Iranian columns at the border. The same goes for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Because threats of nuclear attack better serve defensive goals, an Iran armed with nukes would not meaningfully change this calculus. Iran’s neighbors would not surrender their land just because Iran has nuclear weapons, if history is any guide. And U.S. guarantees of retaliatory strikes could back them up, if necessary. Nukes might embolden Iran to take chances that a state worried about invasion would not. But the difficulty of subduing a nationalistic country of 75 million people already deters our invasion.
The current contretemps with Iran is no reason for “maintaining our military presence and capabilities in the broader Middle East,” as the secretary of defense would have it. Removing U.S. forces from Iran’s flanks might strengthen the hand of the Iranian minority opposed to building nuclear weapons, though it is doubtful that alone would be enough to let them win the debate anytime soon. But even if Iran does build nuclear weapons, we can defend our limited interests in the region from off-shore.
With gasoline in the United States moving toward (and in some places, above) $4 a gallon and motorists understandably unhappy, there is a growing desire to blame someone for the high prices.
Previous gas price spikes in 2006 and 2008 brought blame on ”Big Oil” (meaning firms like Exxon-Mobil, BP, Royal Dutch/Shell, et al., which really are just mid-sized oil — but whatever), the Bush administration and Republicans, environmentalists, and the federal government. But 2011 offers a new leader in the blame game: speculators. From Capitol Hill lawmakers, to business columnists, to activist websites, to letters to the editor and hyper-forwarded emails, people are calling out trading in the oil and gasoline futures markets, aka ”speculation,” and demanding that government do something about it.
The problem is, I haven’t seen any of these folks offer a coherent explanation for how speculation drives up the price at the pump. And I doubt any is forthcoming.
The speculation-blamers’ story is simple enough: Investors sign futures contracts in oil and gasoline — traditionally, agreeing to a price today for oil or gas that will be delivered weeks or months in the future (and that probably has yet to be pumped out of the ground or refined). But, speculation-blamers say, the investors are running amok, paying outrageous prices for the futures. Those prices then affect oil and gasoline sales today, driving up prices at the pump.
Worse, they say, many of the futures are just paper transactions: the traders don’t have oil or gas to sell, nor do they intend to take delivery of it. Instead, when the future closes (that is, reaches its end-date), then one of the two counterparties will simply pay the other the difference between the agreement’s price and the actual market price on the closing day. For instance, if Smith Investments and Jones Investments signed a six-month future for one barrel of oil at $100, with Smith taking the “short” position (believing that oil’s price will be less than $100 six months from now) and Jones taking the “long” position (believing the price will be above $100), and six months from now oil is selling for $80, then Jones will pay Smith $20. Vice-versa if oil’s price is $120. (In fact, most futures today are settled in cash, even if one of the counterparties is somehow involved in oil production or use.)
On first blush, the speculation-blamers’ story makes sense: Surely, the price for future delivery of oil or gasoline will affect the price for present-day delivery. And all the paper-transaction stuff just seems devious and dangerous — shrewd Wall Street investors are hosing Main Street again!
But think more carefully about the story, and it begins to unravel.
Futures prices for some commodity like oil or gasoline can affect current prices — but if and only if those futures cause producers, consumers, or stockpilers (i.e., people who buy and hold commodities for future sale, aka speculators) to change their behavior in some way that would affect supply and demand today. For instance, if the federal government were to announce that it’s going to buy a lot of gold in six months at a price much higher than what it sells at now, stockpilers would likely respond by buying and storing gold today in anticipation of selling it to Uncle Sam later, at a profit. This would push up prices today.
However, commodities that are costly to store are less likely to experience this because speculators will have to factor in the storage cost, which could make the strategy risky and unprofitable. For instance, roses are inexpensive most of the year, but are very expensive around Valentine’s Day. The reason for this (in part) is that roses harvested in August can’t be stored cheaply and sold on Valentine’s Day. A “rose future” signed in August but closing in February won’t have much effect on August rose prices.
Interestingly, oil and gasoline are more like roses than gold. Oil and gas don’t spoil (at least, not to the extent roses do), but they’re expensive to store — petroleum is heavy, dirty, emits fumes, and is combustible. For that reason, not a lot of oil or gasoline is stockpiled for the long term (beyond the Strategic Petroleum Reserve). With that said, there has been some building of oil stockpiles in recent weeks, but it’s not dramatically higher than the stockpiling usually seen prior to the summer driving season – and gasoline stocks have been declining.
What about the devious-seeming paper transactions? One prominent speculation-blamer, The Street contributor Dan Dicker, derisively compares this investing to gambling. OK, but what does that have to do with the price of gasoline at the pump? If you and I were to bet on the Capitals-Rangers series, our bet wouldn’t affect the outcome of the series. Likewise, I don’t see how a bet on the future price of oil between two investors would affect the price of oil today (or in the future for that matter) because their paper transaction would not affect the supply or demand for oil today.
So what is driving the gasoline price spike? It seems far more likely that it is the result of a combination of the following:
All of this exacerbates the underlying problem: World demand for oil is very strong at most any price, but supply can’t be ramped up quickly in response to demand (because it takes about a decade to bring a new oil field online). In economic parlance, this means that both supply and demand are “price-inelastic,” which in turn means that even little problems can have a big effect on price (fortunately, in either direction). To understand this better, see this short paper.
Now, I admit, I’m no Wall Street wizard, and perhaps the Dan Dickers of the world know something that I don’t. But, so far, I haven’t seen them present a sound explanation for their claim that speculation is to blame for high gas prices. When I read their comments, I think of the old retort, “What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?” So the next time one of these folks starts in, we need to get him to clearly explain how “speculation” affects the price at the pump.
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