Topic: Energy and Environment

Hurray for Profits

Good news from the oil industry: ExxonMobil announced a record after-tax profit of $39.5 billion for 2006.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070201/ap_on_bi_ge/earns_exxon_mobil

That is great news because it means the company will have more funds to reinvest in exploration, refinery expansion, drilling platforms, chemical plants, and all those other brilliant machines that American families benefit from every day.

The firm invested $20 billion in exploration, structures, and equipment in 2006 and $18 billion in 2005. See here and here.

High profits are a signal to ExxonMobil management, other energy companies, and Wall Street to feed this industry more capital and to continue increasing energy production. That’s good news for U.S. energy security and U.S. consumers.

The bad news with high corporate profits is that governments confiscate so much of them. In 2005, the firm paid current income taxes of $23 billion on pre-tax profits of $59 billion, for an effective income tax rate of 39%. (The firm also paid $31 billion in excise taxes to governments). Of course, Exxon simply collects these taxes on behalf of governments–the ultimate burden falls on individuals.

(In 2006, income taxes were $28 billion on pre-tax earnings of $67 billion, but I couldn’t find the breakdown of current vs. deferred tax)

Anyway, kudos to Exxon for their fine performance!

Bush’s Alternative-fuel Boondoggle

A CBSnews.com column explains how huge ethanol subsidies enrich special interests like Archer Daniels Midland:

Ironically, the president’s call echoes a more severe proposal by his 2004 campaign opponent John Kerry — a recommendation that a National Center for Policy Analysis study found would not “reduce future U.S. dependence on foreign oil.” The president’s plan also proposes an expansion of the so-called Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS), which currently mandates that refineries produce 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol per year by 2012.

But, as Heritage Foundation energy analyst Ben Lieberman points out, “if ethanol were a viable fuel, you wouldn’t have to mandate it in the first place.” Indeed, ethanol — whether made from corn or trendy cellulosic sources like switchgrass — is simply not viable as an alternative for the fundamental reason that a gallon of ethanol only goes 75 percent as far as a gallon of gas.

…For the farm lobby, the renewable mandate is easier to understand. It means money. Lots of money. To make ethanol price-competitive, the federal government subsidizes its production to the tune of 51 cents a gallon, costing U.S. taxpayers $4.1 billion a year.

Fueled by the RFS, Big Ethanol producer Archer Daniels Midland rang up record 2006 profits that would make Big Oil blush. Now Bush is proposing to increase the mandate to a fanciful 35 billion gallons by 2017 (whether consumers buy it or not). And as the federal honey pot grows, it is naturally attracting more flies.

Meanwhile, a Wall Street Journal column notes how the ethanol subsidy has a big negative impact on other users of corn, and even causes harm in other nations:

What we have here is a classic political stampede rooted more in hope and self-interest than science or logic.

…[F]ederal and state subsidies for ethanol ran to about $6 billion last year, equivalent to roughly half its wholesale market price. Ethanol gets a 51-cent a gallon domestic subsidy, and there’s another 54-cent a gallon tariff applied at the border against imported ethanol. Without those subsidies, hardly anyone would make the stuff, much less buy it — despite recent high oil prices.

That’s also why the percentage of the U.S. corn crop devoted to ethanol has risen to 20% from 3% in just five years, or about 8.6 million acres of farmland. Reaching the President’s target of 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels by 2017 would, at present corn yields, require the entire U.S. corn harvest.

No wonder, then, that the price of corn rose nearly 80% in 2006 alone. Corn growers and their Congressmen love this, and naturally they are planting as much as they can.

…[F]or those of us who like our corn flakes in the morning, the higher price isn’t such good news. It’s even worse for cattle, poultry and hog farmers trying to adjust to suddenly exorbitant prices for feed corn — to pick just one industry example.

The price of corn is making America’s meat-packing industries, which are major exporters, less competitive. In Mexico, the price of corn tortillas — the dietary staple of the country’s poorest — has risen by about 30% in recent months, leading to widespread protests and price controls. …Thus is a Beltway fad translated into Third World woes.

…The scientific literature is also divided about whether the energy inputs required to produce ethanol actually exceed its energy output. It takes fertilizer to grow the corn, and fuel to ship and process it, and so forth. Even the most optimistic estimate says ethanol’s net energy output is a marginal improvement of only 1.3 to one. For purposes of comparison, energy outputs from gasoline exceed inputs by an estimated 10 to one.

And because corn-based ethanol is less efficient than ordinary gasoline, using it to fuel cars means you need more [fuel] to drive the same number of miles. This is not exactly a route to “independence” from Mideast, Venezuelan or any other tainted source of oil.

…If cellulose is going to be an energy miracle — an agricultural cold fusion — far better to let the market figure that out. Not that any of these facts are likely to make much difference in the current Washington debate. The corn and sugar lobbies have their roots deep in both parties, and now they have the mantra of “energy independence” to invoke, however illusory it is. If anything, Congress may add to Mr. Bush’s ethanol mandate requests.

Taylor vs. Woolsey this Sunday on Foreign Oil

This Sunday, I’ll be debating former CIA chief James Woolsey at a “conservative summit” in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the National Review. The topic: “Resolved: That the federal government should act to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil.” James Woolsey, of course, will take the affirmative. 

Unfortunately, it seems as if there’s no room for new attendees, so if you’re not already registered for this weekend confab, you probably can’t get in. There is a good chance, however, that the debate will air live on C-SPAN (either I or II). So if you’ve got nothing better to do at 10:30 am EST Sunday, you might want to tune in.

The last time I tangled with Woolsey directly, it was during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee in July 2005. Both he and I were part of a four-member panel to testify about the Chinese National Oil Company (CNOOC) bid to buy a controlling interest in UNOCAL. Woolsey argued that the merger was the first shot of WWIII. I argued that it’s no business of ours whether UNOCAL stockholders sell their shares to CNOOC and that it’s no skin off America’s nose one way or the other. For those who missed the resulting fireworks, let me just say that I tore him apart and did so in grand style. I fully expect to do so again this weekend.

Each of us will have five minutes at the NR event to state our case. That’s a tall order. There is a lot that can be said — and has been said — about the alleged evils of foreign oil. Rather than get too deep into the policy weeds (that can wait until the Q&A), I think I’ll use the few minutes I have at the start to say something like the following:

The case for importing oil is the same as the case for importing, say, computer chips. If it’s cheaper to buy something from abroad than to produce it here at home, then the economy in general — and consumers in particular — are made wealthier by imports. Governmental interventions to discourage energy imports are, by definition, government interventions to discourage the use of cheap energy.

Mr. Woolsey contends that the government must act because foreign oil supplies are increasingly subject to disruption. True enough. But that’s why market actors are busily stockpiling oil in private inventories. They are saving oil for a rainy day in the hopes of making a profit if and when that disruption occurs. Private investors are also sinking increasingly large sums of money into oil futures in order to hedge against other investment bets and to diversify equity-heavy portfolios. This has further increased the stock of oil held off the market for future use. 

Many petroleum analysts, such as Philip Verleger and William Brown, think that private inventory buildup and the surge of dollars into oil futures markets is responsible for a large part of today’s price. How large is unclear, but Brown thinks that oil would sell for around $27 a barrel today were this not going on. Think of this as an oil tax — imposed by the market itself — to account, in part, for the possibility of future supply disruptions. In short, what makes James Woolsey think that the market isn’t already hedging sufficiently against the possibility of import disruptions?

And let’s not forget that a supply disruption anywhere in the world will increase the price of crude oil everywhere in the world. Accordingly, even if we imported zero oil, we would still be just as economically vulnerable to a terrorist attack on Saudi oil-producing facilities as we are at present.

Mr. Woolsey’s argument that dollars spent on oil imports funds Islamic extremism is only partially true. Oil revenues in the Middle East are established by global supply and demand, so even if the U.S. spent no money on Persian Gulf oil, producers would see the same revenue coming in the door — all things being equal. 

Regardless, there is no correlation between oil profits and Islamic terrorism. A thorough examination of oil prices from 1983 to present compared with data concerning Islamic terrorist attacks (both in frequency and in body counts) reveals no relationship between the two whatsoever. We’ll soon be publishing the regression analysis to prove it.

In sum, foreign oil is cheap oil. Market actors have every incentive to take the risks of supply disruption into account when they buy products from abroad. Consumers can hedge against these risks, if they are so interested, in any number of ways. Government has no business doing for us what we can do for ourselves. Conservatives have no business embracing government dictates about what oil companies can buy and sell absent Mr. Woolsey’s consent.

I probably can’t pack all that into a five-minute opening statement, but we’ll see.

The Ethanol Con

The pitch to reduce American gasoline consumption by 20 percent over the next 10 years was one of the highlights (or, make that, lowlights) of the president’s State of the Union Address last Tuesday night. The president hopes that three quarters of that goal will be met by that old political standby — corn.

Yesterday, the Orange County Register ran an op-ed I wrote that debunks the claims that:

  • ethanol will lead to energy independence;
  • ethanol is economically competitive now;
  • ethanol reduces gasoline prices;
  • ethanol is a renewable fuel;
  • ethanol reduces air pollution;
  • ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions;
  • ethanol subsidies are necessary to “level the playing field”; and
  • cellulosic ethanol is a promising economic bet.

Since I wrote that, however, even more devastating research has come to light. On the issue of global warming, a PhD student at MIT just issued a paper through MIT’s Laboratory for Energy and the Environment demonstrating that, on a life-cycle basis, ethanol and gasoline emit about the same amount of greenhouse gases. Increasing ethanol production, however, will tilt the greenhouse gas balance against ethanol because the only way to get more corn production is to seed more land with corn. That new cropland will be, on balance, less productive than the land already being used for corn, so land harnessed at the margin would require more fertilizer and/or irrigation (read, more energy inputs) to produce commercially optimal yields. The increased energy inputs required for the new cropland will be so great that the author believes that the president’s plan for wildly expanding ethanol production would actually make greenhouse gas emissions higher than they are at present.

For a more robust discussion of this automotive snake oil, see the cover story I co-authored — titled, “The Ethanol Illusion” — in the most recent issue of the Milken Review. An even more comprehensive beating, in the form of a full Policy Analysis, will soon be published by Cato.

By the way, I live to debate this topic. If anyone wants to sponsor an event featuring me and the ethanol shyster of your choice, just drop me a line. Any time, any place, any where.

Bush’s Energy Pablum

Last night, President Bush unveiled what he calls his “20-by-10” plan, a program that he claims would reduce America’s gasoline consumption by 20 percent within 10 years. You can find my critique of the alternative fuels madness that he proposed last night here, a more thorough critique of ethanol subsidies in general here, my complaint with his $60 billion plan to massively expand the Strategic Petroleum Reserve here and here, and a call to dismantle – not revise – federal automobile fuel efficiency standards here.

By the way, you know that a plan was dreamed up by politicians and pollsters – and not by, oh, anyone who knows what they are talking about – when the numbers are nice and round with a catchy ring to them when put together.

How Large are Federal Oil Subsidies?

Yesterday, I co-authored an op-ed with Peter Van Doren on the Democrats’ energy bill scheduled for a vote today in the House.  The bill is advertised as an exercise to eliminate the subsidies going to “Big Oil” and to use that money instead to subsidize renewable energy (the fact that “Big Oil” is also in the renewable energy business and will simply find that the federal checks are going to different corporate in-boxes has apparently not occurred to anyone, but I digress).  But did the Democrats wipe out all the subsidies, or did they leave some big subsidies behind?

A lot of people think that the Democrats left a lot of money on the table.  Today in the Christian Science Monitor, for example, economist Doug Koplow argues that the biggest subsidy left untouched by Pelosi & Co. relates to the military protection of oil producing facilities and shipping lanes abroad, a mission which costs the taxpayer at least $19 billion a year. 

While the Ds certainly were less than thorough in their anti-oil-subsidy crusade, I’m not so sure that the subsidies are anywhere near as large as many people think.

Quantifying the national security costs associated with ensuring the safe and reliable delivery of foreign oil is difficult.  The Congressional Research Service estimated in 1997 that those costs may be anywhere between $0.5-65 billion, or 1.5 cents to 30 cents per gallon for motor fuel from the Persian Gulf.  Agreement about the extent of the military’s “oil mission” is difficult because military and foreign policy expenditures are generally tasked with multiple missions and objectives, and oil security is simply one mission of many.  Analysts disagree about how to divide those missions into budgetary terms. 

Debate about the size of the U.S. military’s oil mission and related foreign policy expenses, however, is not particularly relevant to a discussion about whether and to what extent oil companies are subsidized by this kind of thing.  From an economic perspective, the key question is whether an elimination of U.S. military and foreign aid expenditures dedicated to “the oil mission” would result in (a) greater corporate expenditures to secure oil from abroad, and/or (b) an increase in the price of oil, and, if so, how much?  That is the true measure of the subsidy if it indeed exists.  That’s because, if the oil mission provides no value to multinational oil companies or oil consumers - as I maintain - than it is not a subsidy.  Measuring the subsidy by the amount of money government spends on the oil mission is at best a measure of how much politicians believe the national security externalities might be.  Political assessments may or may not be accurate.            

To be sure, if the termination of the American “oil mission” implied the termination of all military, police, and court services in the region, petroleum extraction investments would become more risky, extraction of oil might decrease, and prices would increase.  But remember that oil companies in the Middle-East are creatures of government.  So the question is really whether Middle-East governments would produce less oil because the United States ended its oil-related military mission and foreign aid.  Or would oil producing states provide – or pay others to provide – military services to replace those previously provided by the United States?           

I strongly suspect that a cessation of U.S. security assistance would be replaced by security expenditures from other parties.  First, oil producers will provide for their own security needs as long as the cost of doing so results in greater profits than equivalent investments could yield.  Because Middle-Eastern governments typically have nothing of value to trade except oil, they must secure and sell oil to remain viable.  Second, given that their economies are so heavily dependent upon oil revenues, Middle-Eastern governments have even more incentive than we do to worry about the security of production facilities, ports, and sea lanes.  

In short, whatever security our presence provides (and many analysts think that our presence actually reduces security) could be provided by other parties were the United States to withdraw.  The fact that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait paid for 55 percent of the cost of Operation Desert Storm suggests that keeping the Straits of Hormuz free of trouble is certainly within their means.  The same argument applies to Al Qaeda threats to oil production facilities.           

If oil regimes paid for their own military protection and the protection of their own shipping lanes, would U.S. Middle-East military expenditures really go down?  The answer might very well be “no” for two very different reasons.  First, the U.S. Middle-East military presence stems from our implicit commitment to defend Israel as well as the region from Islamic fundamentalism, and those missions would not likely end simply because Arab oil regimes paid for their own economic security needs.  Second, bureaucratic and congressional inertia might leave military expenditures constant regardless of Israeli or petroleum defense needs.              

Thus, U.S. ”oil mission” should not be viewed as a subsidy that lowers oil prices below what they otherwise would be.  Instead, the expenditures are a taxpayer-financed gift to oil regimes and the Israeli government that has little, if any, effect on oil prices or corporate profits.  Now, I’d be happy to see the oil mission go, but “Big Oil” won’t be any poorer for it.

Plug-In Pablum

One can’t swing a dead cat in Washington these days without hitting someone who’s ranting about how plug-in hybrid vehicles (part gasoline engine, part battery-powered engine, but rechargeable like a wall appliance) are the wave of the future.  Of course, if they really were the wave of the future, there would be no need for ranting in Washington - automobile manufacturers would be busy making them as we speak.  It’s only when corporate America is cool to an idea that the prophets turn to the taxpayer or the regulator.  This illustrates Taylor’s law - “the commercial merit of any particular technology is inversely related to the degree of political tub-thumping heard in Washington for said technology.”

Which brings us to plug-in hybrids.  Noted automobile engineers James WoolseyFrank Gaffney, and Gal Luft, among others, have been going into overdrive of late to demand federal action to compel the manufacture and sale of these sorts of cars, which they assure us perform so splendidly and can be so wildly profitable for both buyer and seller that only some sort of inexplicable insanity explains their absence from car lots all across America.  This “Neo-Cons for Neo-Cars” alliance is picking up steam and is increasingly embraced by all sorts of smart opinion leaders who can barely program a VCR, much less design an engine.

An invaluable reality check, however, can be found in the Sunday New York Times.  There, reporter Lindsay Brooke notes that, while automobile companies are busily developing plug-in prototypes, there remains one little problem - the battery necessary to make such a car go from here to there has yet to be invented.  While the industry is optimistic that something will come along in the near future, industry executives confess when pressed that the cars would be so expensive to manufacture that they probably wouldn’t sell without government subsidies or consumption mandates.

Why are Neo-cons and other assorted hawks so obsessed with automotive powertrains?  My guess is that they fear U.S. foreign policy is being terribly constrained by our need to import oil.  Plug-in hybrids would liberate the country from worrying about how our actions play on the Arab street, freeing Uncle Sam to act even more uninhibitedly around thew world.

Look, if the auto industry wants to make these things and consumers want to buy them, fine with me.  But before we start bossing Detroit or their customers around and turn over automobile manufacturing to the very same crowd that manufactured the war in Iraq, consider yourself warned.