Topic: Energy and Environment

Attention Sen. McCain: Moderation in the Pursuit of Tax and Spending Cuts is No Virtue

Reporters are lighting up my voice mail and inbox with queries about what I make of Sen. John McCain’s call today for suspending SPR fill orders and the federal gasoline tax from Memorial Day to Labor Day in a bid to get gasoline prices down. Color me tepid.

Let’s take these issues one at a time. John McCain is absolutely correct to blame the SPR for helping to drive-up world crude oil prices. Oil economist Phil Verleger, for instance, thinks that federal fill orders for the SPR has driven up the price of crude by at least $10 a barrel and perhaps as much as $30. But why only temporarily stop the madness? Now’s a good time to dump the all federal inventories on the market and shut the SPR down once and for all. If we’re lucky, we’ll burst what may be an oil price bubble along the way and finally have something positive to show for the tens of billions of dollars of taxpayer funds that have been sunk into this white elephant.

The same goes for the federal gasoline tax. John McCain of all people should know that federal gasoline tax revenues are steroids for localized pork and special-interest subsidy. Road construction and maintenance (and the taxes that pay for them) should be turned back to state and local governments. A short-term moratorium on taxes, however, would probably have little impact on pump prices. If gasoline supplies are relatively fixed over the next several months (as I suspect they are), any service station that tried to pass the tax cut on to consumers would find demand increasing beyond where it otherwise would have been, and that increased demand would bid prices back up to where they were before federal taxes were cut. Over the long term, a cut in federal gasoline taxes would indeed reduce pump prices, but that’s not what John McCain is talking about here.

Sen. McCain is on the right track. But half-measures won’t accomplish much.

The World at 350 ppm Carbon Dioxide

According to James Hansen, the Paul Revere of global warming, the safe level for CO2 may be 350 ppm. Hansen is concerned that “ice sheet disintegration, vegetation migration, and GHG release from soils, tundra or ocean sediments, may begin to come into play on time scales as short as centuries or less.”  But currently the atmospheric concentration is 385 ppm. The 350 ppm level was reached twenty years ago in 1988, the same year that James Hansen sounded the alarm over global warming at a Congressional hearing.

Is the world better off today compared to 1988?

Let’s check:

  • Life expectancy in developing countries was 4-5 years lower in 1988 than it is today (62 years rather than the current 67 years). Even in the US, it increased from 74.9 years in 1988 to 77.8 years in 2004!
  • Compared to today, at least 15 more infants out of every 1,000 in developing countries died in 1988 before reaching their first birthdays. In industrialized countries, the infant mortality rate dropped from 9 to 5.
  • India’s per capita income (in constant dollars adjusted for purchasing power) has more than doubled since 1988. China’s has more than quadrupled. As a result, hundreds of millions are no longer living in absolute poverty today. Even the US’s per capita income has increased by 40 percent.
  • Food production per capita in developing countries has increased 36 percent since 1988, despite a population increase of 40% (that is, 1.5 billion more people). [What fraction of this was due to the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and petroleum-based and greenhouse gas-emitting fertilizers, all of which stimulates crop growth?].

Much of these improvements are due to economic growth and agricultural activity that fueled the rise of CO2 concentrations beyond 350 ppm. Because of technological change, it is likely that a portion of these improvements would have occurred absent any economic growth (as pointed out in the book, The Improving State of the World ). But had CO2 concentrations been capped at 350 ppm, we would have to forgo many of the above improvements in the quality of life, and not only in the developing world.

But would we want to go back to the world of 1988 — or even 1998 for that matter?

If we can go back to 350 ppm without giving up the real and tangible advances in human well-being that have accrued since that “benchmark” was passed, I’d have nothing against that, but based on the precautionary principle, one needs a stronger reason than the speculative catastrophes that Hansen is concerned “may begin to come into play on time scales as short as centuries or less,” whatever that means.

Is There an Oil Price Bubble?

I’m not sure exactly what a “bubble” is. The popular view is that a “bubble” exists when the fundamental value of an asset (the present value of the stream of cash flows that one might expect to receive in the future) deviates significantly from the market price of that asset. But future cash flows are by definition uncertain. Because market fundamentals are based on expectations regarding future events, I don’t know how one can know a priori when a bubble exists unless one has access to a time machine or crystal ball. There are plenty of citations I could offer (like this paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and this paper from Brookings) from very credible economists arguing that the rise in housing prices was perfectly consistent with “non-bubble” economic fundamentals.

Moreover, “bubbles” (that is, market expectations regarding future returns that turn out to be incorrect) can last a long time. Economist Robert Shiller, for instance, analyzed approximately 400 years worth of housing data and concluded that, over time, housing prices track increases in income. But housing markets can – and have – deviated markedly from that fundamental price trajectory for as many as 50 years before reversion to the mean.

Two questions naturally arise. First, is a 50-year bubble really a bubble? Second, are investors irrational (or engaged in irrational speculation) if they invest based on solid data regarding returns from a multi-decadal economic trend? It may be perfectly rational to invest in an over-valued asset if one has good reason to think that one can take the profits and run before the bubble bursts. And it may be perfectly rational to believe that market fundamentals have changed so much that 50 year-old data is no longer relevant to the market at present or future.

I am unsure whether we’re witnessing a bubble in oil markets today. Two “non-bubble” explanations for the price run, after all, are perfectly plausible. First, it may very well be that low-cost crude is running low and/or that demand will continue to surge to such an extent that prices have nowhere to go but up. Second, OPEC member states may continue to invest modestly in upstream capacity in order to maximize revenues, so even if there is plenty of low-cost oil still available in the world, the cartel will prevent new supply from reaching the market. For the record, I am skeptical of both propositions, but I do not dismiss them out of hand.

The initial driver for the oil price increases we’ve seen since 2003 appears clear to me. A combination of tight production capacity and a surge in demand provided the foundation for the current price run. The oil market moves in rather predictable boom and bust cycles, and historic market patterns foretold the timing of this event if anyone was paying attention. For that trend data, see chapter 3 in this book by my colleague Peter VanDoren.

The best argument against “speculation” in the subsequent price spiral is offered by oil economist Phil Verleger, a fellow I think quite highly of. Verleger believes that, whatever truth there might be to the simple “supply-and-demand” story I offered above, those price increases were greatly exacerbated by a huge move of dollars into commodity futures. That influx of cash was not driven by speculation (classically defined). According to Verleger, it was driven instead by the market recognition of the fact that, historically speaking, (i) commodities provided better returns over long periods of time than provided by equities, and (ii) returns on commodity investments are negatively correlated with returns on equities.

Hence, market actors thought they found an investment vehicle that provided a hedge against volatility in stock markets while also promising excellent long-term returns to boot. Even more interesting for our purposes, however, is the fact that this huge flow of cash into commodity futures (with a very large share of that investment going to oil and gas) came primarily from large institutional investors such as pension funds, university endowments, and the like. Those investments tended to be fully collateralized (that is, institutional investors were not borrowing to invest) and they are buy-and-hold investments for the long term. Neither of those two investment strategies is consistent with the popular vision of what constitutes “speculation.”

The most recent Fed actions to combat the deteriorating state of the macroeconomy added even more fuel to the oil price fire. With market actors increasingly convinced that the Fed is willing to entertain inflation in the course of injecting liquidity into the market, investors are looking for investments to hedge against inflation. And what do you know? Returns on commodities have historically been better during inflationary periods than during non-inflationary periods. Ben Bernanke thus sent another strong infusion of cash into commodity futures – again, largely into oil and gas futures.

The increased demand for oil futures drives spot prices because it diverts oil from immediate use into inventories. The stepped-up infusion of oil into public inventories (the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the emerging state inventory maintained by the Chinese government, for instance) has also contributed to the diversion of oil from immediate use and thus, has further increased prices. Federal mandates for low-sulfur fuel hasn’t helped either.

For what it’s worth, Verleger does not believe that this infusion of cash into oil futures is sustainable. Returns have been modest and there are simply not enough profits available to support these investments over the long haul. “Speculators” – classically understood – have reacted and will continue to react by leaving the market when returns prove disappointing.

Large institutional investors, however, are less sensitive to changing price signals given their “buy-and-hold” strategy and relative lack of market sophistication. But sooner or later, Verleger thinks that they, too, will take much of their cash out of the commodity markets. Historically correct observations about past returns in commodity markets will not hold. They reflect observations about a market that was absolutely tiny compared to the size of the present commodity market (inflated as it is with institutional cash) and profits have and will be dissipated.

Verleger goes so far as to put the “bubble” tag on oil markets, but again, he does not attribute that bubble to simple speculation. Nevertheless, he predicts a (big-time) crash, but does not predict when that crash will occur. I am less certain about the “bubble” tag (see my introductory paragraph), but I wouldn’t bet against it. I think Verleger’s narrative regarding the root causes of the oil price boom is better than any other I’ve run across.

Oil Subsidies in the Dock

Yesterday, Congress summoned the heads of BP, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhilips, and ExxonMobil to defend the prices they’re charging at the pump and the subsidies they are receiving from the federal government. The former issue is of less interest to me than the latter.

The main issue is the so-called Section 199 tax credit passed in 2005. The credit is available to all domestic manufacturers - not just to oil and gas companies - and it allows the oil industry to write-off $13.6 billion over ten years that might otherwise be sent to the federal treasury. While a good case could be made to get rid of Section 199 in toto – the feds shouldn’t be in the business of artificially making some business activities more economically attractive than others – limiting that deduction for oil and gas companies and oil and gas companies only will compound the underlying economic distortion and encourage investors to put relatively less money in oil and gas production and more money in other industrial sectors. How is that a good thing with oil prices topping $100 a barrel?

Oil companies are already paying a staggering tax bill. In 2006, for instance, big-bad ExxonMobil faced an effective tax rate of 44 percent on a profit margin of around 11 percent, a figure that actually understates things because corporate revenues sooner or later find their way to oil company employees, contractors, shareholders, and those who do business with the same, and that revenue is taxed again via the personal income tax.

“So what?” you ask? Well, the more you tax “Big Oil,” the less return investors will get on money plowed into oil production. The less return on investment, the less investment there will be. Less investment equals less production, and less production equals higher prices. This is fact, not theory. Analysts at the Congressional Research Service report that the 1980 Crude Oil Windfall Profits tax reduced domestic oil production by 3-6 percent and increased oil imports by 8-16 percent for exactly that reason.

If the Congress were really interested in ending oil and gas subsidies, it could eliminate preferential tax treatment afforded intangible domestic drilling expenses, increase the amortization period for geological and geophysical expenditures from five years to seven, end preferential expensing for equipment used to refine liquid fuels, close the exemption from passive loss limitations for owners of working interests in oil and gas properties, and eliminate accelerated depreciation allowances for small oil producers, natural-gas distribution pipeline investments, and expenditures on dry holes. Such a plan would reduce – rather than compound – economic distortions produced by the tax code and deliver about $8.3 billion for the Treasury over 10 years. Congress is presumably less inclined to offer such a plan because those subsidies are far more important to “Little Oil” than they are to their “Big” brethren, and it’s the former – not the latter – that has most of the political clout in Washington.

Regardless, if getting rid of subsidies is such a good thing, then why does Congress propose to take those subsidies away with one hand but to reallocate them to the renewable energy business with the other? If renewable energy is economically competitive, it doesn’t need the subsidy, and if it’s not economically competitive now – with energy prices setting records across the board – then what makes anyone think that federal subsidies will make any difference? After all, they never have in the past. Ethanol has been lavished with government subsidy for 30 years, yet ethanol is still about $1.20 per gallon more expensive than conventional gasoline on wholesale markets last week after we adjust for the differential in energy content between the two. Nuclear energy has lived off a plethora of federal subsidies for five decades now, yet rather than being “too cheap to meter,” it’s still more expensive than any other conventional source of electricity once we account for the cost associated with building the reactor. Examples of similar subsidy boondoggles are legion.

Getting rid of energy subsidies is a fine thing, and Democrats are right to argue that those subsidies are even less warranted at a time when energy prices – and thus, energy profits – are relatively high. Too bad they aren’t serious about translating their rhetoric into legislative reality.

The Global Warming Panic That Isn’t

August, 2005 - Hurricane Katrina blows into the Gulf of Mexico and blasts New Orleans to smithereens. Environmentalists quickly blame the storm on global warming – or at the very least, claim that warming will inevitably lead to more Katrina-like hurricanes. Although there is no clear scientific consensus on what impact a warming world might have on the frequency of big Gulf hurricanes, it’s enough to move public opinion significantly on the question of whether federal, state, and local governments ought to do something about climate change.

May, 2006 - Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth opens in New York and Los Angeles. The companion book becomes the #1 paperback non-fiction book on the New York Times bestseller list in July. The movie goes on to become the fourth highest grossing documentary in U.S. history and wins an Academy Award.

July, 2007 - Live Earth concerts to save the planet feature 150 top musical acts in 11 cities around the world. While it’s unclear how many people actually watched those concerts, Live Earth set a record for on-line entertainment with over 15 million video streams during the live concerts alone.

October, 2007 - Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change win the Nobel Peace Prize.

March, 2008 - The Heartland Institute sponsors a conference in New York City to showcase scientific skepticism about the seriousness of climate change. The event is received with uncharacteristically loud derision by the mainstream media.

Now, with all of that in mind, wouldn’t you think that the public would be growing more – not less – worried about climate change? You might,  but you would be wrong. According to today’s Energy & Environment Daily (subscription required), a new poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates and released by the John Brademas Center for the Study of Congress at New York University finds that Americans are less worried about climate change than they were a couple of years ago.

E&E Daily reports that the survey’s margin of error was +/- 3 percent. Here are the highlights:

The percentage of Americans who said global warming requires immediate attention declined from 77 in 2006 to 69 percent today.

The percentage of Americans who said they were “very worried” about global warming increased from 31 percent in 2006 to 39 percent in 2008. But that’s misleading; everyone gets “more worried” about everything in a presidential election year. What’s striking to me is that the rise in the number of those “very worried” about global warming was less than the rise in the number of those “very worried” about the four other issues surveyed by Brademas Center (Medicare, Social Security, and energy).

The declining number of those who said they were “somewhat worried” about global warming more than offset the increase of those who reported being “very worried.”

There are several possible explanations for this data. My guess is that it’s a little of each of the following.

Explanation #1 – The public has only limited patience for “end of the world” prognostications. If the world isn’t visibly ending from whatever boogey man is said to menace said world, most of us begin to lose interest. We’re all well aware that Earth has been sentenced to doom hundreds of times over by activists of various stripes but has somehow gained a reprieve time and time again.

Explanation #2 – The time horizon of most voters is very, very short. Getting people to voluntarily sacrifice for “the grandkids” or whomever is a near-impossible task. It would probably take a Katrina-a-year … and even then, that might not be enough. The mathematical certainty regarding the economic train wreck about to be visited upon “the grandkids” as a consequence of the trillions of dollars of unfunded liabilities for present federal health care and retirement programs does not engender sacrifice. It engenders shrugs and accelerated wealth transfers from the future to the present.

Explanation #3 – Global warming, if it plays out as the IPCC suspects, will be a slow-moving event. Panic over climate change has to compete with panic over Islamic terrorism, panic over housing markets, panic over globalization, panic over energy prices, panic over immigration, and episodic panic over dozens of other (usually dubious) worries. Simply put, global warming has a hard time competing with all of the other items on the policy agenda.

So conservatives, take heart. Enviros, take a valium.

Blame OPEC? Not So Fast!

In today’s Washington Post, columnist Robert Samuelson blames OPEC for the 2003-2008 oil price spiral in an arresting column titled OPEC’s Triumph. Color me skeptical.

Samuelson says that the beginning of the price surge can be traced back to early 1999, when oil prices were around $10 a barrel. OPEC and major non-OPEC producers in Norway, Mexico, and Russia jointly agreed to “cut production sharply,” Samuelson reports, and subsequent compliance with those output quotas was “surprisingly good.”

Well, let’s go to the data (specifically, data from the Energy Information Administration found here and here). In 1998, oil production in OPEC (minus Angola) plus the “Big Three” non-OPEC members mentioned by Samuelson was on average 43.6 million barrels per day (mbd). In 1999, aggregated production from those parties did indeed drop by about 1 mbd, but in 2000, production from the same shot up by 2.5 mbd and remained steady in 2001 (45 mbd). Production in 2002 dropped by about 1.5 mbd, but then jumped by 2.6 mbd in 2003; 3 mbd in 2004, and 1.4 mbd in 2005 before dropping back by 0.5 mbd in 2006.

So at best, we have some evidence that the producer agreement flagged by Samuelson had the desired effect in 1999 – if not necessarily thereafter. But even that’s unclear. Oil markets were so soft in 1999 that plenty of “non-conspirators” cut oil production that year as well. Canada, for instance, went from 2.7 mbd in 1998 to 2.63 mbd in 1999 before jumping back up to 2.75 mbd in 2000. The United States exhibits the same pattern; 9.28 mbd in 1998, 8.99 mbd in 1999, and 9.06 mbd in 2000. Many smaller “price takers” unaffiliated with any cartel made the same production decisions. Australia, for instance, went from 649,000 barrels a day (bd) in 1998 to 647,000 bd in 1999 and 828,000 bd in 2000.

If post-1999 OPEC decisions were truly constraining global crude oil supply, we should see an increasing amount of unused production capacity lying idle in those countries. But we don’t. While the true amount of unutilized production capacity is hard to estimate confidently, industry watchers seem to agree that it is going down, not up. Producers don’t seem to be holding any light crude oil back at all (the most valuable kind to the market) and what they are holding back (very heavy sour crudes) is hard to sell. That doesn’t square with a story about how recent decision-making by OPEC is responsible for starving the market and inflating price.

If OPEC is to blame for all of this, the blame rests on cartel members who haven’t invested as much in production capacity as they might have absent membership in the same. But it takes a long time for investment in new production capacity to yield substantial amounts of crude oil – sometimes as much as 8-10 years. And given the prices of a decade ago (the lowest inflation adjusted prices in recorded history), it’s hard to blame the cartel for a lack of investment from 1999-2003. Even non-cartel members were uninterested in substantial investments in production capacity back then.

Now, none of this is to rule out Samuelson’s hypothesis out of hand. Production costs are so low in OPEC (they are widely thought to be less than $5.00 a barrel in Saudi Arabia), that one could argue that any profit maximizing economic actor not caught up in price-fixing operations would have invested a lot more money in production capacity than we’ve seen in the Persian Gulf to-date. But there are alternative explanations out there for this lack of investment. Maybe “cheap oil” is indeed running out. Maybe domestic political considerations are frustrating investments (these are state-owned oil companies after all). Maybe marginal production costs outside of Saudi Arabia are a lot steeper than many analysts realize. Maybe it’s not the cartel per se that’s constraining production; maybe it’s the unilateral exercise of Saudi market power under the cartel’s cover that’s to blame. It’s worth noting that academics have studied OPEC for decades and are still unable to find hard evidence that the cartel has indeed given us higher crude oil prices than would have been given us in an alternative world without OPEC.

Interestingly enough, the chief source for Samuelson’s column – oil economist Philip Verleger – doesn’t buy Samuelson’s argument. Verleger thinks that the increasing demand for oil securities as a hedge against volatility in equity markets and the weakening dollar explains the bulk of the price run-up between 2003-2007 and that the United States government – via its insane buy-orders for the SPR – is largely responsible for the near-doubling of oil prices since last August.

There are, of course, alternative explanations out there, but none of them fit comfortably with the data. And that’s what makes oil markets so interesting to watch these days – nobody can be completely sure exactly what is going on. Samuelson’s explanation, however, is somewhat less convincing than most.

Bush to Congress - Unhand that Candy!

Last week, the House passed an energy tax bill that would dole out some $18 billion worth of renewable energy tax breaks. To pay for it, they would increase taxes (advertised falsely as eliminating equivalent tax breaks) to the same degree on everyone’s favorite kicking-post, “Big Oil.” The bill is now in the Senate, and most observers doubt that the latter aspect of the bill will survive.

Okay, so what does the adminstration say about this? Andy Karsner, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy at the DoE, sticks to the standard administration script - he wants the spending but not the taxing. At an energy conference hosted by the administration today, Greenwire (subscription required) reports that he said, “Stop holding the ‘candy’ hostage to political arguments and games and distractions!”

So this is what conservative Republicanism has come to. Corporate welfare (at least, some corporate welfare) is candy. Subsidies are, presumably, akin to chocolate. Well, if so, then it’s time for these guys to go on a diet. Better yet, it’s time for these guys to get out of town. Let’s take away everyone’s candy and call it a day.