Tag: oil imports

Energy Error Continued

When Barack Obama emerged as a serious contender for the presidency, he offered a core menu of curing everything by increased federal intervention in health care, education, and energy. Whenever new problems arose that lessened the urgency of earlier concerns, Obama has crafted assertions that his original prescriptions will also resolve the new difficulties. In energy, this has involved extending his program to new, even more dubious projects. He also has a habit of incessantly repeating the same tired arguments in the vain hope that his skill at persuasion will win the day.

His March 30, 2011 energy speech and accompanying Blueprint are typical. About the only differences between these and his June 15, 2010 speech on energy were more bad ideas. He added to the panic-driven slowdown in offshore oil and gas drilling permits, now rationalized as a prudent response; a post-Japan crisis review of nuclear power; and another for new methods of producing natural gas. For no good reason, he argued that Brazilian oil development needed U.S. government support despite the long history that successful oil development in some of the most backward countries in the world has occurred without major U.S. government aid. (In fact, the aid offered was an Export-Import Bank loan and thus more an exercise in crony capitalism than a useful move.)

Otherwise Obama continued to display the central characteristic of his philosophy — that he and his advisers possess such superior insight that they can guide the average American to better decisions. This is precisely the Progressive error that has led to the present political mess and the cause of the dramatic 2010 shift in the composition of the U.S. House of Representatives. Whenever concerns arise that he has overreached, he claims that he was doing the sensible thing.

His Blueprint constitutes Exhibit A in the case against this interventionism. It is essentially a list of the many mandates that Obama has achieved or desires, ranging from high-speed rail to micromanaging the design of every new building in the United States. This list is dominated by the many provisions of the infamous stimulus bill that indiscriminately threw money at every favored area including energy. Obama seems to believe that seeing where the money went will counteract the outrage at ill-conceived, unnecessary, and counterproductive spending. At least to energy specialists, what actually appears is resounding proof that the voters were right — every idea is bad.

The speech also showcased Obama’s talent at making dubious assertions. Many have commented that he does not deserve the credit that he seems to claim for the rise in U.S. oil output. The very long lead times, which Democrats traditionally use to oppose expanded oil-and-gas leasing, imply that the rise was facilitated by actions in prior administrations. An even greater whopper was his intimation that the existence of many undeveloped leases suggests that no rush exists to lease and license more. The more obvious criticism is that his cumbersome licensing policy contributes to the inability to develop. Less apparent is the likelihood that many of those leases proved, after further examination, to be unattractive while more promising areas are being withheld from leasing.

He similarly selected the most misleading possible way to understate U.S. oil-production potential. He indicated correctly that the United States has only 2 percent of world “proved” reserves of oil. What he ignored is that proved reserves cover only already-known sources and wild methodological differences among countries in how this is calculated make cross-country comparisons dubious. (This situation was worsened by 1970s hysteria. The highly efficient existing U.S. system was replaced because it was run by the supposedly untrustworthy industry. The government created its own far more expensive and far less satisfactory system.) The more reliable measure of actual production shows an 8.5 percent U.S. share in 2009. Neither measure satisfactorily indicates what really matters — the potential efficiently to add production. Obama thus adds to his prior unjustifiable aim to reduce petroleum use by also misstating the petroleum potential. Substantial oil imports remain desirable for the U.S. because of the underlying economics. Nevertheless, the federal government has imposed undesirable restrictions on oil and gas production.

What’s Wrong with Imported Oil?

In a speech today at Georgetown University, President Obama called for a goal of cutting America’s oil imports by one-third within a decade. Like all efforts to wean Americans from big, bad imports, such a policy will mean we will all pay more than we need to for the energy that helps to power our economy.

I’ll leave it to my able Cato colleagues to dissect the president’s proposal in terms of energy policy, but in terms of trade policy, this is about as bad as it gets.

We Americans benefit tremendously from our relatively free trade in petroleum products. Like all forms of trade, the importation of oil produced abroad allows us to acquire it at a price far lower than we would pay if we had to rely more heavily on domestic oil supplies.

The money we save buying oil more cheaply on global markets allows our whole economy to operate more efficiently. Oil is the ultimate upstream input that virtually all U.S. producers use to make their final products, either in the product itself or for shipping. If U.S. manufacturers and other sectors are forced to pay sharply higher prices for petroleum products because of import restrictions, their final goods will cost more and will be less competitive in global markets. If households are forced to pay more for gasoline and heating oil, consumer will have less to spend on domestic goods and services.

The president talked in the speech about the goal of not being “dependent” on foreign suppliers, but most of our oil imports come from countries that are either friendly or at least not in any way an adversary. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, one third of our oil imports in 2010 came from our two closest neighbors and NAFTA partners, Canada and Mexico. Another third came from the problematic providers in the Arab Middle East and Venezuela (none from Iran, less than one-third of 1 percent from Libya.) The rest came from places such as Nigeria, Angola, Colombia, Brazil, Russia, Ecuador and Great Britain.

Even if, by the force of government, we could reduce our imports by a third, there is no reason to expect that the reduction would be concentrated in the problematic providers. In fact, oil is generally cheaper to extract in the Middle East, so a blanket reduction would probably tilt our imports away from our friends and toward our real and potential adversaries.

In one speech, the president has managed to state a policy goal that is bad trade policy, bad security policy, and bad foreign policy.

Oil Import Make Believe

A conversation with documentarian Robert Stone regarding Earth Day is featured today in The New York Times’s “Dot Earth” online column.  In the course of his conversation with the Times’s Andrew Revkin, Mr. Stone – who is quite alarmed about our reliance on foreign oil – asks:  “How many Americans know that we send about $800 billion to the Middle East every year for oil?”

Hopefully, not many. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. spent $95.4 billion on crude oil imports from OPEC sources in 2009.  But not all OPEC members are from the Middle East.  That $95.4 billion includes dollars spent on oil originating from Algeria ($6.3 billion), Angola ($9 billion), Ecuador ($3.4 billion), Nigeria ($17.7 billion), and Venezuela ($23.4 billion) – none of which are in the Middle East.  Subtract out that oil and we arrive at $35.6 billion spent on Middle Eastern crude oil (a figure rounded from the original nominal counts.  I have used the customs value – that is, the estimated value – of the oil being imported rather than the figures that include additional costs for insurance and transportation because money being spent on insurance and shipping goes to third parties that are not for the most part located in the Middle East.  But if one wants to use those slightly higher figures, it won’t change the numbers very much at all).

For what it’s worth, the total amount of dollars Americans sent abroad for crude oil from all sources was $188.5 billion last year.

Even if the figure were $800 billion, so what?  No one is forcing refineries to buy crude oil from foreign suppliers.  They presumably believe that the oil at issue is more valuable than the money that must be offered to secure said oil and that oil from other sources is more expensive than oil from the Middle East. Hence, they buy. This is by definition a wealth creating transaction for American business enterprises. Foreign trade, Mr. Stone, is a good thing.

The implicit claim, of course, is that there are negative externalities associated with foreign oil consumption. This, however, is faith masquerading as fact (an argument also well made by Cato adjunct scholar Richard Gordon).

Regardless, Mr. Stone overstates the alleged problem by orders of magnitude.