Topic: Energy and Environment

Heritage - Out of Energy

To many people, the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation are closely related ideological siblings. This causes me no end of frustration. There are plenty of rather significant differences between us — health care, immigration, foreign policy, the War in Iraq, etc. — but even in areas where you would think we might agree, we often don’t. Like energy.

For instance, according to Heritage, the Ur-commandment for the federal energy policy is as follows:

Lawmakers should implement a long-term energy plan that balances supply and demand, ensures reliable and affordable supplies of energy for the future, and provides responsible stewardship of the nation’s resources.

To me, that smells of Soviet 5/10-year economic planning. If you really think a bunch of vote-maximizing politicians with no particular expertise in energy markets can competently execute those tasks, then God bless you. Me? I’d rather leave those tasks to the market, thank you very much.

Still, views over there are not monolithic. Ben Lieberman and I generally see eye-to-eye, but Ariel Cohen might as well be titled “Senior Research Fellow for Anti-Taylor Studies.” See, for instance, his worries about energy security and his support for turning Justice Department antitrust lawyers loose on OPEC.

The tension between the Lieberman and Cohen is palpable. Cohen, for instance, was generally happy with President Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address, which called for America to break its “addiction to oil.” Lieberman, on the other hand, was not. And some outside voices given a platform at Heritage muddy the waters further. For instance, Daniel Fine appears willing to entertain federal subsidies for oil shale development, and no one over there — to my knowledge — has said a discouraging word about Republican efforts to launch “Synfuels, Part Deux.”

So it was with some interest that I read a new missive out of Heritage from Stuart Butler and Kim Holmes — Heritage’s vice presidents for domestic and foreign policy studies respectively — on the 12 principles that should guide federal energy policy. When the bosses step in to lay down some guidelines in a policy arena where tension has previously existed, one should pay attention.

And what do they have to say? Not much that I would say. Let’s go through their principles one by one.

1. Avoid costly environmental regulatory man­dates that will achieve little environmental gain.

No problem here, but the idea that environmental regulations are constraining investment in America’s energy infrastructure is greatly overblown, as we’ll see when we get to their nearly-identical Principle #5.

2. Rely on the private sector’s research and development capabilities.

Fine, but Butler & Holmes support generalized rather than specific tax subsidies for energy R&D, which they imply here but make more explicit when they get to Principle #7. Given where energy prices are today, I don’t think investors need any encouragement from the taxpayer to engage in these undertakings. Profit incentives established by endogenous price signals should suffice.

3. Urge government agencies to learn from the private sector.

Yeah, that will happen. The reason government agencies rarely behave like private businesses is because their incentives are different. Public actors gain utility by maximizing political capital. Market actors gain utility by maximizing profits.

That aside, Butler & Holmes seem to be saying that the Pentagon and other federal agencies should be willing to pay more for fuel efficiency than they do at present. Maybe, but fuel efficiency costs money, and unless we know the gains associated with those expenditures versus the gains associated with alternative expenditures, we can’t confidently offer advice.

4. Make all sources of energy within U.S. bor­ders accessible.

I’m not so sure. If policymakers could allocate scarce resources among competing user groups in an efficient manner without price signals to guide them, then the Soviet Union would probably still be around. We don’t really know whether ANWR, for instance, is more valuably employed as an oil platform or as a wildnerness preserve because we have only limited information about the public’s willingness to pay for either. Now, I suspect that, it these things were left to the market, that there would be more energy development on federal lands, but I don’t know that. It would be best to privatize the lands at issue and let market actors sort this out.

Regardless, Butler & Holmes argue that “Failure to make full use of these domestic energy resources exacer­bates the security and cost problems caused by geopolitical events and makes America more vulnerable to supply disruptions and price increases.” This is nonsense. Supply disruptions anywhere in the world increase the price of crude oil everywhere in the world to more-or-less the same degree, so increasing domestic production does nothing to insulate our economy from malicious producers or random disruption events abroad.

Nor would increasing domestic production reduce revenue to producers very much given that there are not enough untapped reserves in the United States to affect world crude oil prices in any substantial manner.

Nor is increasing domestic production a hedge against the threat of embargo for the simple reason that embargoes can’t work absent a deep-sea navy to enforce them. All that happened in 1973, for instance, was instead of buying our oil from Arab members of OPEC, we bought our oil from people who bought their oil from Arab members of OPEC and shifted to non-OPEC producers, displacing their customers who then bought from Arab members of OPEC.

5. Remove artificial constraints on the domes­tic energy infrastructure, including unneces­sarily severe environmental regulations.

While it would be convenient for anti-government types like me to argue that “Red tape has restrained the expansion of refineries, construction of new pipelines and electricity transmission lines, and construction of new power plants,” that’s not entirely true. Refineries are not being built because (i) it’s cheaper to expand capacity at existing refineries, and (ii) because it’s a hotly competitive industry with little return on investment capital compared to the returns available to the industry elsewhere. Transmission lines aren’t getting built for a whole host of reasons, and “red tape” is only a relatively minor contributor to the problem.

The proposition that “Several key domestic energy sources, particularly coal and nuclear power, can fulfill their potential and thus help to achieve energy security only if costly regula­tions and procedural requirements are revised or eliminated” likewise misdiagnoses the problems. Nuclear power plants aren’t built because they are simply too expensive, and even the industry’s own trade association thinks the regulatory problems identified by Butler & Holmes are relatively nonexistent (something I learned when sitting on a panel with Richard Myers, Vice President at the Nuclear Energy Institute, at a conference sponsored by the Manhattan Institute earlier this year).

6. Ensure that any effort to reduce reliance on foreign oil is grounded in policies that are best for the economy.

I could write a book on the absurdity of the popular campaign against “foreign oil,” but rather than turn this blog post into said book, let me simply propose the following: The case for importing oil is the same as the case for importing anything else. If it’s cheaper to get oil from a foreign producer than from a domestic producer, then economic health is improved by buying from the former source rather than the latter. The case for free trade applies to oil just as much as it applies to steel, tennis shoes, or television sets. There is no “BTU exception” to Adam Smith’s observations on this matter.

Anyway, Butler & Holmes want to have the feds lead us in a campaign to diversify America’s energy supplies. Poppycock. If diversification makes sense as a hedge against supply disruption, then why won’t market actors efficiently diversify of their own accord? Until I hear a reasonable answer to that question, we can deposit this idea into the wastebasket labeled “ideas that make sense for one minute until you think about them for two.”

7. Manage risks to critical energy infrastruc­ture as a responsibility shared jointly by the government and the private sector.

Why should the taxpayer expend funds to protect private property? Don’t property owners have every incentive to optimally invest to protect assets worth millions and in some cases billions of dollars? What exact market failure leads us to think that they don’t?

Unfortunately, Butler & Holmes don’t get into that. Instead they simply assert that “Government can best understand threats and take steps to reduce them, while businesses can best assess their own vulnerabilities and address them effectively.” Question #1: what makes them think that government assesses risk better than market actors? Question #2: what makes them think that government knows better than private asset owners about how to efficiently address whatever risks are identified?

8. Establish effective risk communications for energy issues.

I’m all for educating the public about energy issues and energy risks, but I’m not convinced that vote-maximizing politicians with no expertise in energy markets are in any position to constructively engage in that activity. Nor am I convinced that Joe Public trusts government enough to take anything it says on these matters at face value. And he’s right.

9. Develop foreign policies that thwart the capacity of coercive regimes to employ energy supplies as an economic weapon.

The oil weapon is the foreign policy equivalent of UFOs — often reported to exist but never produced for public inspection. Can producers purposefully and signficantly cut way back on production and consequently harm consumers? Sure, in theory. Have they ever done so? No. Why? Because it would blow their economies to smithereens. Simply put, producers need the money derived from oil revenues more than consumers need the oil from the same.

Regardless, the ability of producers to inflict damage on consumers in this manner is entirely related to how dependent consumers are on oil … from whatever source. There is no foreign policy in the world that can change that fact.

10. Sustain access to the global marketplace.

Sure, count me in. But when Butler & Holmes go on to say that, “To accomplish this, the United States should retain the capability to use all of the instruments of national power — including military, diplomatic, law enforcement, intelligence, economic, and informational power — in any theater where U.S. interests could be at risk,” I get off the policy train. I simply do not think the U.S. should be threatening war if a country is not producing as much oil as we might like or is adopting anti-market policies that we disapprove of. In short, I say “no blood for oil.”

11. Discourage restrictive international regimes.

Sure, but how? As noted above, Heritage’s Ariel Cohen thinks we should prosecute OPEC as a criminal conspiracy in violation of U.S. antitrust law. I think that’s nuts. Short of that, how can we “discourage these practices” — as Butler & Holmes put it? Beats me.

How about a policy of providing no favors whatsoever to cartel members? That is, no military assistance, no foreign aid, and no bilateral actions that provide any benefit to those countries whatsoever? That might make some sense, but then we’d have to get out of Iraq (why are we defending a regime that’s a member of said criminal conspiracy?), tell Saudi Arabia that, as far as al Qaeda is concerned, they are on their own, and inform Kuwait that we regret having lifted a finger to defend that country against fellow-conspirator Saddam Hussein and won’t do that again were Iran, say, to come a-knocking. That would be fine with me, but I doubt that it would be fine with Butler & Holmes.

12. Recognize that not all trading partners are equal.

On the surface, what’s to argue with here? Of course Canada (our number one source of imported oil) is not the same as Venezuela (our fourth largest supplier of imported oil). But Butler & Holmes is smuggling in a more ambitious argument. To wit, America (presumably when possible) should trade with producers that share our political values and not with those who don’t.

Decisions about where America gets its oil are not, however, made by some bureaucrat in the Department of Energy. They are made by thousands of private actors in energy markets. So a policy of discouraging imports from countries a, b, and c while encouraging imports from countries x, y, and z by neccessity means regulating a vast swath of the market previously unmolested by government.

What would be gained by this? Nothing much. As noted above, America’s vulnerability to supply disruptions abroad is dictated by how much oil it uses, not where its oil comes from. Producer revenues are dictated by global supply and demand curves that establish price, not by the identity of the parties lining up for its oil. All that would result from the intervention suggested by Butler & Holmes is slightly higher domestic oil prices. That’s because buying from a distant “good actor” (say, Norway) rather than a much closer “bad actor” (say, Venezuela) means paying higher transportation prices.

Butler & Holmes conclude with this: “Americans clearly understand that freedom, opportunity, and their very quality of life suffer when abundant, affordable energy supplies are threatened.”

Americans may think that, but that doesn’t make it so.

Even with the highest inflation-adjusted gasoline prices in recorded history and plenty of threats in the air menacing supplies abroad, Americans spend less on automotive fuel as a percentage of their take-home pay than they have during most of modern history and the economy continues to hum along nicely. Even a worse-case scenario, like the loss of Saudi Arabia to the world market (13% of global supply), would likely have no more impact than the loss of Iran to the world market (10% of global supply) had in the late 1970s (which is particularly the case given that much of the damage from the 1978 price explosion was due to the oil price controls in place at that time, not a rise in oil prices per se). America survived the latter event and would certainly survive the hypothetical equivalent today without losing its “freedom, opportunity, or quality of life.”

It would be nice to have more allies on the Right. Unfortunately, I find that the Sierra Club is more willing to entertain free market energy policies than is the venerable Heritage Foundation. And that’s sad.

Stealing Property

A headline in the Saturday Washington Post reads:

Russia’s Gazprom Purchases Siberian Gas Field From BP

The story begins:

The state-controlled energy giant Gazprom on Friday bought a vast natural gas field in Siberia from a unit of British-based petroleum conglomerate BP, continuing the Kremlin’s policy of shifting control of the country’s major energy projects from foreign to state hands.

The last part of the sentence begins to hint at what really happened, a truth that is concealed by words like “purchases” and “bought.” In fact, the Russian government and its giant energy firm Gazprom forced BP to sell, as it has forced other companies to turn valuable properties over to Gazprom and the oil company Rosneft, often through the use of trumped-up tax or regulatory issues.

Journalists should be straightforward about such things. Gazprom did not “purchase” a gas field from BP. This was no “willing buyer, willing seller” transaction. It would more accurately be described as a seizure, a confiscation, or at best a forced sale.

The Wall Street Journal used similar language. The New York Times, to its credit, was more honest and clear: Its headline read, “Moscow Presses BP to Sell a Big Gas Field to Gazprom,” and the story began, “Under pressure from the Russian government, BP agreed on Friday to sell one of the world’s largest natural gas fields to Gazprom, the natural gas monopoly, in the latest apparently forced sale that benefited a Russian state company.”

Footnote: Today is the second anniversary of the Kelo decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could take private property for the benefit of other private owners such as developers. In a stinging dissent, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote:

The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory. …Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result.

The United States is not Russia. But O’Connor’s warning that “the beneficiaries [of forced takings] are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms” is certainly borne out — not just by a new Institute for Justice report on eminent domain in action — but by the actions in Putin’s Russia.

Of Tax Credits and Government Subsidies

Previously on Cato-at-Liberty, Michael Cannon (post 1, post 2) and Andrew Coulson (post 1, post 2) argued with Jason Furman (on health care) and Sara Mead (on education) about the nature of tax credits and tax breaks.

Furman and Mead claim that tax credits and breaks, because they represent forgone tax revenue, are little different than government subsidies (with a raft of implications). Cannon and Coulson (for various reasons) disagree.

The great “a-ha” moment of the discussion came when Mead pointed to Cato scholars’ criticism of ethanol tax credits as subsidies or “tax expenditures.” Even other Cato scholars agree that ‘tax credit’ equals ‘government subsidy,’ she says.

Surprisingly, up to this point, the argument has largely ignored the use of the credited money/forgone government revenue. I would argue the use of the credited money is fundamental to determining if the credit/tax break is a subsidy.

In the case of an education credit, it is true that government would lose revenue because of the credit. But government has also assumed the obligation to educate the nation’s children, and government would be released from that obligation in the case of the child whose schooling is funded by the credited money. Is the credit, thus, a subsidy?

Consider: If Joe owes his bank a $10 fee for its services and, instead of sending Joe a bill, the bank simply deducts that amount from his account, we wouldn’t describe Joe as subsidizing the bank (or the bank as subsidizing Joe). Likewise, if government has assumed the obligation to educate little Johnny, but instead Joe pays Johnny’s tuition and receives a government tax credit as a result, it seems incorrect to say that Joe has received a subsidy. Instead, just as with the bank and Joe, the education credit represents a net adjustment of Joe’s obligation to government and government’s obligation to little Johnny.

Now, there may be reasons why government should not make this adjustment, but those reasons would not include that the adjustment is a subsidy to Joe. The only subsidy in this system is government’s taking on the obligation to provide little Johnny with schooling — a subsidy that I assume Mead finds acceptable.

Parenthetical #1: I suppose there is one condition under which Joe’s education tax credit should be considered a subsidy: if government education expenditures aren’t about educating Johnny, but about providing jobs for unionized public school workers. Thus, Joe’s paying for Johnny’s tuition at a private school wouldn’t be fulfilling government’s intended obligation. But surely, no one thinks that government education policy is about benefiting unions and bureaucrats instead of educating kids, right?

Health care tax benefits (e.g., HSAs, tax deductions for medical expenses, the tax-free status of employer-provided medical coverage) are a murkier subject. There is no explicit government financial obligation to provide the entire nation with health care (though supporters of socialized medicine claim there should be such an obligation — and, I assume, they are intellectually consistent and support tax breaks and credits for the private provision of health care).

There are, however, legally established government obligations to provide health coverage to the poor (Medicaid, SCHIP, et al.), the elderly (Medicare, Medicaid, et al.) and to guarantee everyone access to care. It may be that the various medical tax credits and insurance tax breaks help government to fulfill those obligations at lower cost than other policies. If that is the case, then tax breaks and credits may be part of the optimal policy for fulfilling that obligation (and Furman would be arguing for a policy change detrimental to welfare).

Parenthetical #2: Full disclosure here — I’m of the camp that health care expenditures should be treated no differently, tax-wise, than other expenditures, and that government has no special a priori obligation to provide health care or health coverage.

Now, juxtapose the above two situations with ethanol tax credits and the other sorts of tax breaks that Cato scholars regularly decry. While there are legally established government obligations to provide schooling for children and health benefits to certain sub-groups of the population, there is (that I’m aware) no government obligation to provide American citizens with corn-based energy for transportation.

Parenthetical #3: I ignore the wacky claim that the U.S. government has an obligation to provide ”energy security” so the nation is protected from evil Canadian and Mexican oil sheiks.

This means that there is no government obligation that ethanol producers can fulfill privately, and thus receive a tax credit or tax break. The ethanol industry’s tax breaks and benefits are not simply “squaring accounts” in the manner as Joe, little Johnny, and the government. The ethanol tax benefits seem to be clear cases of government subsidy, and they should be criticized as such.

Where does this reasoning leave the discussion between Cannon and Coulson on the one hand, and Furman and Mead on the other? At the very least, it seems Coulson’s position is fully consistent with Cato’s general critique of subsidies. Further, given the premise that government has some special obligation to provide health care, Cannon’s position also seems consistent with Cato’s general critique of subsidies.

I am curious, though, whether the Left’s sudden concern over subsidies is consistent with positions they take on health care, education, and other policy areas….

Sharks and the Tragedy of the Commons

The global shark population may be sharply declining, according to an article in the Washington Post. Actually, the article never quite gives a number for the global population, but it does warn that “something must be done to prevent sharks from disappearing from the planet.” And there are suggestive reports like this:

In March, a team of Canadian and U.S. scientists calculated that between 1970 and 2005, the number of scalloped hammerhead and tiger sharks may have declined by more than 97 percent along the East Coast, and that the population of bull, dusky and smooth hammerhead sharks dropped by more than 99 percent. Globally, 16 percent of 328 surveyed shark species are described by the World Conservation Union as threatened with extinction.

Post reporter Juliet Eilperin notes that shark attacks can be big news, but in reality sharks kill about 4 people a year worldwide, while people kill “26 million to 73 million sharks annually.”

Why kill sharks? To make money, of course, mostly for the Asian delicacy shark-fin soup. Shark fins are much more valuable than shark meat. Mexican shark hunters say they get $100 a kilogram for shark fins but only $1.50 a kilo for meat.

Unlike fish that reproduce in large numbers starting at an early age, most sharks take years to reach sexual maturity and produce only a few offspring at a time. Shark fishermen also tend to target pregnant females, which are more profitable because they are larger. As a result, said Michael Sutton, director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Center for the Future of the Oceans, “there is no such thing as a sustainable shark fishery.”

So OK, here’s where Eilperin should have said, “Wait a minute … if there’s money to be made, why would greedy capitalists want to destroy the goose that lays the golden egg? Shouldn’t they want to maximize their long-term profits?” And if she had, she might have run into a concept called “the tragedy of the commons.” Owners try to maximize the long-term value of their property. Timber owners don’t cut down all the trees and sell them this year; they cut and replant at a sustainable rate. But when people don’t own things, they have no incentive to maintain the long-term value. That’s why passenger pigeons went extinct, but chickens did not; why the buffalo was nearly exterminated but not the cow.

But Eilperin says that “sharks take years to reach sexual maturity.” Maybe that’s why they can’t be profitably farmed. Maybe. But elephants also mature slowly, and African countries that allow ownership and markets are seeing booming populations of previously threatened wildlife (pdf).

Oceans, of course, present even more challenges: how do you create private ownership in fish or sharks or sea turtles that can easily move through vast and unfenced bodies of water? It’s a more difficult challenge, but attempts to create private solutions that overcome the tragedy of the commons are being studied and experimented with, especially in Iceland.

Eilperin reports on many proposals for “tight new controls” and legislative bans and endangered species lists and catch limits. Those proposals provide no incentives for sustainable harvests, they leave shark hunters every reason to try to evade them, and they failed to protect elephants and tigers. The Post’s readers — and the world’s sharks — would benefit if Eilperin would do a follow-up article on property-rights solutions that might properly line up incentives and create sustainable shark markets.

Schumer’s 0.15 Cent Solution

On Wednesday, the Joint Economic Committee held hearings on gasoline prices and whether they are on the up-and-up. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the committee chairman, made his position — and the position of many of his fellow senators — perfectly clear. The oil companies should be busted up, he said, and lower prices will naturally flow.

Really? The best witness he had on hand to back him up was Thomas McCool, director of applied research methods at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). McCool contended that mergers and acquisitions in the oil sector in the 1990s have increased wholesale prices by 1-7 cents per gallon. Now, it would appear on its face that tossing the economic equivalent of an atomic bomb into the oil sector to reduce wholesale prices by a few pennies a gallon might not be the best idea in the world. Nonetheless, a close read of McCool’s testimony suggests that it’s an awfully thin reed to hang public policy on.

The first thing we notice is that McCool’s testimony relied exclusively on past GAO reports. The fact that there is a mountain of peer-reviewed academic work on this subject was unacknowledged in his testimony. This, unfortunately, is par for the course at the GAO. The implicit attitude over there is “if we didn’t do the study, the study isn’t worth looking at.” As a consequence, most GAO analysts are horribly ignorant about many of the issues they discuss. Now, I don’t know if Thomas McCool is familiar with the economic literature on these questions or not, but given his job title, I would doubt it.

Luckily, not all federal agencies act as if they are the font of all conceivable wisdom. The Federal Trade Commission recently published a thorough study on oil markets with due attention paid to the external literature on the subject. In a paper commissioned for that study from University of Iowa economist John Geweke, we find that academic researchers have been unable to lay down any good evidence that mergers and acquisitions have, on balance, increased consumer prices,” a finding all the more telling given the higher quality of that work. As Geweke notes in passing regarding an earlier GAO study on mergers and acquisitions in the oil business, which used roughly the same methodology as the more recent study, “assessment of the technical work in the GAO report is hampered by the fact that the report’s documentation of data and estimation methods does not generally meet accepted academic standards.” Geweke’s criticism was echoed in the FTC’s analysis of GAO’s 2004 study, which was savaged [pdf] by the commission’s economists (see the appendix).

Second, it’s important to note the distinction between changes in posted rack prices (which is what GAO used to reflect wholesale prices) and retail prices. The two are not the same. As the staff of the Bureau of Economics of the FTC noted back in 2004,

Rack wholesale prices and retail prices do not always move together, in part because rack prices do not necessarily measure actual wholesale transaction price, which are also affected by discounts, and in part because significant quantities of gasoline reach the pump without going through jobbers.

Hence, GAO did not find that retail pump prices increased by 1-7 cents per gallon. I didn’t even find that wholesale prices increased by 1-7 cents per gallon. It purported to find that posted rack prices increased by 1-7 cents per gallon. That may - or may not - have increased retail pump prices. FTC economists, for instance, agree with GAO that the Marathon-Ashland merger increased posted rack prices, but found no evidence that retail pump prices increased as a result.

In sum, what GAO found is equivalent to finding that this or that led Ford to increase the suggested retail price of a car by x. Maybe it did, but that “suggested retail price” has little to do with actual prices paid by new car buyers on car lots. Did McCool make this distinction clear? Not on your life.

Third, McCool’s depiction of GAO’s 2004 findings is highly suspect even in the particulars. The 2004 GAO study that McCool relied upon for his claims actually were two separate studies packaged under one binding.

One analytic exercise provided a total of 10 estimates of the effects of mergers and acquisitions on posted rack prices. Those estimates cover three types of fuel (conventional, reformulated, and specially blended gasoline for the California market) and different geographic areas. Seven of the 10 estimates — all involving either conventional or reformulated gasoline — found that mergers and acquisitions increased wholesale fuel prices by 0.15 cents per gallon to 1.3 cents per gallon. Although mergers and acquisitions were found to increase wholesale California gasoline prices by 7-8 cents per gallon, that finding was not at a level of confidence normally thought of as statistically significant. And interestingly enough, the GAO study did not find a statistically significant increase in wholesale gasoline prices in the eastern part of the United States.

Another analytic exercise examined eight of the 2,600 mergers and acquisitions that occured between 1994-1999. GAO provided 28 estimates of the effects of those mergers on posted rack prices for branded and unbranded conventional, reformulated, and California-specific gasoline. In 16 cases, GAO found a positive and statistically significant impact on posted rack prices ranging from 0.4 cents per gallon to 6.9 cents per gallon. In seven cases, they found a negative and statistically significant effect, ranging from a price decline of 0.4 cents per gallon to 1.8 cents per gallon. In five other cases, they found no statistically significant effects at all.

Yet McCool glosses over these more careful observations in his oral presentation for the more arresting “1-7 cents per gallon” impact estimate. Media coverage might have been somewhat different had McCool said that GAO found no evidence that mergers and acquisitions have increased posted rack prices in the eastern half of the United States, but some evidence to suggest that mergers and acquisitions increased posted rack prices by somewhere between 0.15 and 3 cents per gallon in the western half of the United States (the findings of the more comprehensive study of the two undertaken by GAO) … but that posted rack prices and a quarter will buy you a cup of coffee for all the good they will do the analyst because posted rack prices and retail prices are two different things. But that wouldn’t have made the members of the committee very happy, and GAO is not in the business of going out of its way to offend the people funding their operations.

In McCool’s defense, at the back of the written testimony he submitted to the committee, he breaks down the study’s findings by merger. According to GAO, the Exxon-Mobil and Marathon-Ashland mergers increased posted rack prices by 2 cents per gallon and reformulated gasoline (posted rack) prices by 1 cent per gallon. The Shell-Texaco merger, however, reduced reformulated gasoline (posted rack) prices by about a half cent per gallon. The Tosco-Unocal merger increased California gasoline (posted rack) prices by 7 cents per gallon.

A note about the Tosco-Unocal merger that provides the upper-bound estimate offered by Mr. McCool - the GAO finding pertains to the (posted rack) price of branded gasoline. The (posted rack) price of unbranded gasoline was actually found to decline. Economists at the FTC note that

Tosco had a branded presence in few of the cities affected by the merger and, where it did, Unocal typically did not have a significant branded presence. Under these circumstances, it is virtually impossible to imagine an anticompetitive theory that would be consistent with a large increase in branded prices but no increases in unbranded prices. Had the GAO researchers understood this problem, they would have recognized that their result must be flawed.

Fourth, McCool’s discussion of the mergers and acquisitions in the 1990s leaves much to be desired. For instance, 2,600 mergers and acquisitions are dutifully noted without the proper context. To wit, the mergers and acquisitions occurred because oil companies were hemorrhaging red ink due to historically low oil prices. Many of these companies simply could not survive on their own. Thus, the mergers and acquisitions. That is a vital aspect of the story that colors the mergers and acquisitions in a far different way than they are being colored by “the trust busters.”

McCool testified that increased consumer prices that followed from a merger can either be good or bad. Mergers will prove bad, he said, if they allow companies to exercise market power. Mergers will be good, however, if they allow for more efficient operations. Unfortunately, he does not tell us whether the mergers and acquisitions in the 1990s that he flagged as having driven up price were “good” or “bad.”

That aside, this sort of argument is a primitive construct. If a merger or acquisition improves efficiency, it will give that company greater pricing power by definition, so this isn’t an “either/or” game. Nonetheless, the observation that it might well be economically healthy if a merger increased fuel prices is quite important and well worth making in a more aggressive manner than it was in the testimony.

Fifth, McCool’s riffs about the oil market were so dodgy that one gains little confidence in GAO’s ability to sort any of these issues out. For instance, McCool contends that domestic refining capacity has not expanded enough to keep pace with demand. I don’t know what that is supposed to mean. Demand for gasoline is only manifested in response to price. If gasoline prices were zero, demand would be nearly infinite. If prices are around $3.00 per gallon, demand for gasoline would be less. So McCool can only be arguing that we don’t have enough domestic refining capacity to meet demand given current prices. Well, that’s flatly wrong. We do indeed have enough gasoline to go around given today’s price. If it were otherwise, service stations would be shutting down because they could not get enough gasoline from wholesalers to keep the pumps flowing. Obviously, they do.

McCool buttresses his contention that refining capacity is seriously constrained by noting that no refinery has been built in the United States since 1976 and then making a big deal of the fact that utilization rates have increased from 78% in the 1980s to 92% in the 1990s. But those observations prove nothing. Regarding the former, investors find it a lot cheaper to expand capacity in existing refineries than to build new refineries altogether - and that’s what they’ve been doing. Regarding the latter, high utilization rates = efficient operations. Excess refining capacity means capital is being wasted. It’s certainly true that if we had more slack refining capacity that we could respond to unexpected supply disruptions more quickly, but it costs money to maintain that reserve and McCool offers no analysis to suggest that this sort excess refining capacity “insurance policy” would be a good buy.

Another example: McCool observes that gasoline inventories are low and then spends some time discussing why the industry is generally inclined to minimize inventory levels as a cost-savings device. This is true enough, but is not particularly pertinent to the present situation. Inventory levels over the three month period of February - April 2007 fell by 15 percent, the steepest drop in history. EIA reports that this occurred because of labor strikes in Europe that disrupted fuel imports and an unusually large degree of refinery maintenance of late. In short, McCool told the wrong story.

McCool also indulged in the kinds of things that constantly grate on the nerves. For instance, he contends that “most of the increased U.S. gasoline consumption over the last two decades has been due to consumer preferences for larger, less-fuel efficiency vehicles ….” This is true in a sense but is a reflection of the underlying fact that real (inflation adjusted) gasoline prices in the 1990s were the lowest in U.S. history. Consumer preferences for gas guzzlers didn’t come out of the clear blue sky. Accordingly, it would be more accurate to say that “most of the increased U.S. gasoline consumption over the last two decades has been due to historically low gasoline prices in the 1990s.” But that would have been less pejorative.

GAO’s analysis is a lot less helpful to the mob than one might think given the number of times it has been offered up as a rationale for Hugo Chavez-style assaults on the U.S. oil sector.

Gore Outrage on Larry King: Some Inconvenient Facts

Here’s the transcript of a Q/A by Al Gore last night on Larry King Live

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Vice President Al Gore, what issues caused by climate change globally are likely to affect the United States security in the next 10 years?

KING: Al?

GORE: You know, even a one-meter increase, even a three-foot increase in sea level would cause tens of millions of climate refugees.

If Greenland were to break up and slip into the sea or West Antarctica, or half of either and half of both, it would be a 20-feet increase, and that would lead to more than 450 million climate refugees.

The direct impacts on the U.S. have already begun. Today, 49 percent of America is in conditions of drought or near drought. And we have had droughts in the past, but the odds of serious droughts increase when the average temperatures go up, as they have been going up.

We have fires in California, in Florida, in other states, unprecedented fire season last year, directly correlated with higher temperatures, which dry out the soils, dry out the vegetation.

We have a very serious threat of losing enough soil moisture in a hotter world that agriculture here in the United States would be greatly affected. Now, the list is too long to give you here, but look, these issues are more important that Anna Nicole Smith and Paris Hilton, and they are not being talked about.

FACT 1. There is not one shred of evidence in the refereed scientific literature speaking of a three-foot increase in sea level in ten years. The best estimates from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change range from 0.8 to 1.7 INCHES.

FACT 2. There is no trend towards increasing drought area in the United States that is related to planetary warming. We have good data on drought area back to 1895. The correlation between the area of the U.S. under drought and planetary temperature is statistically ZERO.

FACT 3. As the mean planetary temperature has warmed since 1975, U.S. crop yields have INCREASED significantly, just as they did during the period of cooling from 1945 through 1975, or during the warming from 1910 to 1945.

It is a true outrage that Gore can get away with this on live television and not be called out by the inconvenient facts.