Posts tagged ‘refining’

Bringing Skepticism (and Math) to Electric Vehicle Fuel Numbers

Frequent readers of this blog will know that I am enormously skeptical of most fuel and efficiency numbers for electric vehicles.  Electric vehicles can be quite efficient, and I personally really enjoy the driving feel of an electric car, but most of the numbers published for them, including by the government, are garbage.  I have previously written a series of articles challenging the EPA's MPGe methodology for electric cars.

In just a bit, I am going to challenge some numbers in a recent WSJ article on electric vehicles, but first let me give you an idea of why I don't trust many people on this topic.  Below is a statement from Fueleconomy.gov, which bills itself as the official government source for fuel economy information (this is a public information, not a marketing site).  In reference to electric vehicles, it writes this:

Energy efficient. Electric vehicles convert about 59–62% of the electrical energy from the grid to power at the wheels—conventional gasoline vehicles only convert about 17–21% of the energy stored in gasoline to power at the wheels

The implication, then, is that electric vehicles are 3x more energy efficient than cars with gasoline engines.  I hope engineers and scientists can see immediately why this statement is total crap, but for the rest, here is the problem in short:  Electricity has to be produced, often from a fossil fuel.  That step, of converting the potential energy in the fuel to use-able work, is the least efficient step of the entire fuel to work process.  Even in the most modern of plants it runs less than a 50% conversion efficiency.   So the numbers for the gasoline cars include this inefficient step, but for the electric vehicle it has been shuffled off stage, back to the power plant which is left out of the calculation.

Today I want to investigate this statement, which startled me:

Factor in the $200 a month he reckons he isn't paying for gasoline to fill up his hulking SUV, and Mr. Beisel says "suddenly the [Nissan Leaf] puts $2,000 in my pocket."

Yes, he pays for electricity to charge the Leaf's 24-kilowatt-hour battery—but not much. "In March, I spent $14.94 to charge the car" and a bit less than that in April, he says.

This implies that on a cost-per-mile basis, the EV is over 13x more efficient than gasoline cars.  Is this a fair comparison?  For those who do not want to read a lot of math, I will preview the answer:  the difference in fuel cost per mile is at best 2x, and is driven not by using less fossil fuel (the electric car likely uses a bit more, when you go all the way back to the power plant) but achieves its savings by using lower cost, less-refined fossil fuels  (e.g. natural gas in a large power plant instead of gasoline in a car).

Let's start with his estimate of $14.94.  Assuming that is the purchased power into his vehicle charger, that the charger efficiency is 90%, and the cost per KwH in Atlanta is around $0.11, this implies that 122.24 use-able KwH are going into the car.  Using an estimate of 3.3 miles per KwH for the Leaf, we get 403 miles driven per month or 3.7 cents per mile in electricity costs.  This is very good, and nothing I write should imply that the Leaf is not an efficient vehicle.  But its efficiency advantage is over-hyped.

Now let's take his $200 a month for his Ford Expedition, which has an MPG around 15.  Based on fuel prices in Atlanta of $3.50 a gallon, this implies 57 gallons per month and 857 miles driven.  The cost is 23.3 cents per mile.

Already we see one difference -- the miles driven assumptions are different.  Either he, like a lot of people, don't have a reliable memory for how much he spent on gas, or he has changed his driving habits with the electric car (not unlikely given the shorter range).  Either way, the total dollar costs he quotes are apples and oranges.  The better comparison is 23.3 cents per mile for the Expedition vs. 3.7 cents a mile for the Leaf, a difference of about 6x.  Still substantial, but already less than half the 13x difference implied by the article.

But we can go further, because in a Nissan Leaf, he has a very different car from the Ford Expedition.  It is much smaller, can carry fewer passengers and less cargo, cannot tow anything, and has only 25% of the Expedition's range.   With an electric motor, it offers a very different driving experience.   A better comparison would be to a Toyota Prius, the c version of which gets 50MPG.  It is similar in most of these categories except that it has a much longer range, but we can't fix that comparison, so just keep that difference in mind.

Let's look at the Prius for the same distances we calculated with his Leaf, about 403 miles.   That would require 8.1 gallons in a Prius at $3.50, which would be $28.20 in total or 7 cents a mile.  Note that while the Leaf still is better, the difference has been reduced to just under 2x.  Perhaps more importantly, the annual fuel savings has been reduced from over $2200 vs. the Expedition that drove twice as many miles to $159 a year vs. the Prius driving the same number of miles.  So the tradeoff is $159 a year savings but with much limited range  (forgetting for a moment all the government crony-candy that comes with the electric car).

$159 is likely a real savings but could be swamped by differences in long-term operating costs.  The Prius has a gasoline engine to maintain which the Leaf does not, though Toyota has gotten those things pretty reliable.  On the other hand the Leaf has a far larger battery pack than the Prius, and there are real concerns that this pack (which costs about $15,000 to manufacture) may have to be replaced long before the rest of the car is at end of life.  Replacing a full battery pack after even 10 years would add about $1200 (based on discounted values at 8%) a year to operating costs, swamping the fuel cost advantage.

Also note that a 2x difference in fuel costs per mile does not imply a 2x difference in fuel efficiency.  Gasoline is very expensive vs. other fuels on a cost per BTU basis, due to taxes that are especially high for gasoline, blending requirements, refining intensity, etc.)  Gasoline, as one person once said to me way back when I worked at a refinery, is the Filet Mignon of the barrel of oil -- if you can find a car that will feed on rump steak instead, you will save a lot of money even if it eats the same amount of meat.    A lot of marginal electric production (and it is the margin we care about for new loads like electric cars) is natural gas, which is perhaps a third (or less) the cost of gasoline per BTU.   My guess is that the key driver of this 2x cost per mile difference is not using less fuel per se, but the ability to use a less expensive, less-refined fuel.

Taking a different approach to the same problem, based on the wells-to-wheels methodology described in my Forbes article (which in turn was taken directly from the DOE), the Nissan Leaf has a real eMPG of about 42 (36.5% of the published 115), less than the Prius's at 50.  This confirms the findings above, that for fossil fuel generated electricity, the Leaf uses a bit more fossil fuels than the Prius but likely uses much less expensive fuels, so is cheaper to drive.  If the marginal electrical fuel is natural gas, the Leaf also likely generates a bit less CO2.

Why Do I Think This Penalty Would Have Been Waived on GE or Dreamworks?

Politicians certainly live in their own world:

The Environmental Protection Agency has slapped a $6.8 million penalty on oil refiners for not blending cellulosic ethanol into gasoline, jet fuel and other products. These dastardly petroleum mongers are being so intransigent because cellulosic ethanol does not exist. It remains a fantasy fuel. The EPA might as well mandate that Exxon hire Leprechauns.

As a screen shot of EPA’s renewable fuels website confirms, so far this year - just as in 2011 - the supply of cellulosic biofuel in gallons totals zero.

“EPA’s decision is arbitrary and capricious. We fail to understand how EPA can maintain a requirement to purchase a type of fuel that simply doesn’t exist,” stated Charles Drevna, president of American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), the Washington-based trade association that represents the oil refining and petrochemicals industries.

I will remind Republicans thought that ethanol is a bipartisan turd, this particular requirement having been signed into law by President Bush.

Cap and Trade and the Corporate State

For years, one of the problems I have had with the way CO2 cap and trade systems were structured was a fear that these systems would devolve into cronyism, with the companies best able to lobby the government getting allocations while less connected companies had to pay.  It seems this is already occuring in California:

 The California Air Resources Board (ARB), the regulator of the forthcoming program, held a workshop in Sacramento on Monday where it discussed plans to give away more free permits to prevent leakage in “trade-exposed” industries like cement production, oil refining and food processing.

Over the first three allowance auctions, which begin in November, the state will sell 48.9 million allowances and give away 53.8 million allowances, according to ARB.

Any company deemed to have either a high, medium or low risk of leaving the state will receive all the allowances they need to comply with the program during the first two-year compliance period, from 2013-2014, rather than have to buy the permits at regular auctions.

But those in the low and medium risk groups are currently scheduled to see their allotment of free allowances start to decline in 2015 by as much as half.

ARB officials on Monday said they are conducting studies examining the leakage risk of companies based on their historical energy costs and trade flows.

Don't be fooled by the quasi-scientific-sounding language here about categories of "trade exposure."  The reality will be that companies with political clout will get the permits, and companies without such clout will not.  This is a system that will favor large manufacturers over smaller companies.  It will also, oddly, apparently shift the burden of compliance from large manufacturers to service companies  (since service companies are the least likely to be "trade exposed.")  Of course, any manufacturer still operating plants in California is crazy anyway.

Great Moments in Government Energy Policy Failure

So, why do we have all these "dirty" coal plants?  Market failure?  Industry greed?  Nope -- Carter-era government policy.  For you younger folks, here is a law you may have never heard of:

The Powerplant and Industrial Fuel Use Act (FUA) was passed in 1978 in response to concerns over national energy security. The 1973 oil crisis and the natural gas curtailments of the mid 1970s contributed to concerns about U.S. supplies of oil and natural gas. The FUA restricted construction of power plants using oil or natural gas as a primary fuel and encouraged the use of coal, nuclear energy and other alternative fuels. It also restricted the industrial use of oil and natural gas in large boilers.**

In other words, all new fossil fuel-powered boilers had to be coal-fired (which in a year or so, after Three Mile Island, translated to all new boilers since nuclear was essentially eliminated as an option).  Yes, this may seem odd to us in an era of so much environmental concern over coal, but something coal opponents don't tell you is that many of the exact same left-liberal-government-top-down-energy-policy types that oppose coal today lobbied hard for the above law several decades ago.  Here is a simplified timeline:

1.  Government energy policy sets price controls that create artificial shortages of oil and gas

2.  Government-created shortages of oil and gas lead to this law, with government demanding that all new fossil fuel-powered electric plants and boilers be coal powered.

3.  Government mandates on coal use create environmental concerns, which lead to proposals for taxes and bans on coal power.

4.  The need for government action against coal is obviated by a resurgence of oil and gas supply once government controls were removed.  However, in response, government beings to consider strong controls on expansion in oil and gas production (e.g. fracking limits).

 

** I got involved with this because I worked in an oil refinery in the 1980's.  We had to get special exemptions to run our new boilers on various petroleum products (basically byproducts and waste products of the refining process).  Without these, the law would have required we bring in coal to run our oil refinery furnaces.

 

Electric Vehicle Mileage Fraud

I am glad to see that other sites with more influence than I are focusing attention on the electric vehicle mileage fraud.   The Green Explored site writes, via Q&O:

The EPA allows plug in vehicle makers to claim an equivalent miles per gallon (MPG) based on the electricity powering the cars motors being 100% efficient. This implies the electric power is generated at the power station with 100% efficiency, is transmitted and distributed through thousands of miles of lines without any loss, is converted from AC to DC without any loss, and the charge discharge efficiency of the batteries on the vehicle is also 100%. Of course the second law of thermodynamics tells us all of these claims are poppycock and that losses of real energy will occur in each step of the supply chain of getting power to the wheels of a vehicle powered with an electric motor.

Finally!  For months I have been writing about this and have started to believe I was crazy.   I have written two Forbes pieces on it (here and here) and numerous blog posts, but have failed to get much traction on it, despite what appears to be near-fraudulent science.  I wrote

the government wants an equivilent MPG standard for electric cars that goes back to the power plant to estimate that amount of fossil fuels must be burned to create the electricity that fills the batteries of an electric car.  The EPA’s methodology is flawed because it assumes perfect conversion of the potential energy in fossil fuels to electricity, an assumption that violates the second law of thermodynamics.   The Department of Energy has a better methodology that computes electric vehicle equivalent mileage based on real world power plant efficiencies and fuel mixes, while also taking into account energy used for refining gasoline for traditional cars.  Using this better DOE methodology, we get MPGe’s for electric cars that are barely 1/3 of the EPA figures.

The linked articles provide much more detail on the calculations.  As a result, when the correct methodology is applied, even in all-electric mode the heavily subsidized Fisker Karma gets just 19 MPG-equivalent.

Do you want to know the biggest energy advantage of electric cars?  When you fill them with energy, you don't stand there at the pump watching the cost-meter spin, as you do in a gas station.   It's not that the energy cost is lower, it's just better hidden (which is why I suggested the Fisker Karma be renamed the Fisker Bastiat, after the French economist who wrote so eloquently about the seen and unseen in economic analysis).  It's why, to my knowledge, no electric car maker has ever put any sort of meter on its charging cables.

The Silly Oil Speculation Meme

Apparently, the leftish-progressive talking point du jour is that oil speculators  (and wouldn't you know it, those apparently include new libertarian uber-villains the Koch brothers) are artificially raising prices above what a "natural" market clearing price would be.

I have always presumed this to be possible for short periods of time - probably hours, perhaps days.  But if, for any longer period of time, market prices (I am talking here about prices for current oil and immediate delivery, not futures prices) stay above the market clearing price one would normally expect from current supply and demand, then oil has to be building up somewhere.  People would be bending over backwards to sell oil into the market, and customers would be using less.

If futures speculation has somehow unanaturally driven up current prices, where is the oil building up?  I understand the price can go up for future oil, because in futures the inventory is just paper.  But the argument is that futures trading is driving up current oil prices.  When the Hunt brothers tried to corner the silver market, they had to buy and buy and keep buying to sop up the inventory.

Sure, some folks may be storing oil on speculation (and by the way most oil companies are inventorying oil and gasoline this time of year in the annual build up between heating oil season and summer driving season) -- but storing physical oil is really expensive.  And the total capacity to do so incrementally is trivial compared to world daily demand.  A few tanker loads sitting offshore is not going to mean squat (total world crude inventory is something like 350 million barrels at any one time, so adding a million barrels into storage only increases inventory by 0.3% or about.   Another way to look at it is that storing a million barrels of oil represents about 17 minutes of daily demand.   If the price is really being held above the market clearing price, then we are talking about the necessity of buying millions of barrels of oil each and every day and storing them, and to keep doing so day after day after day to keep the price up.  And then once you stop, the price is just going to crash before you can sell it because of the very fact that word got out you are selling it.

I dealt with this in a lot more depth here.  I want to repost it in full.  It's a bit dated (different prices) but still relevant.  Note in particular the irony of my friends point #5 -- this was a real view held by many on the progressive Left.  Ironic, huh?

I had an odd and slightly depressing conversation with a friend the other night.  He is quite intelligent and well-educated, and in business is probably substantially more successful, at least financially, than I.

Somehow we got in a discussion of oil markets, and he seemed to find my position suggesting that oil prices are generally set by supply and demand laughable, so much so he eventually gave up with me as one might give up and change the subject on someone who insists the Apollo moon landings were faked. I found the conversation odd, like having a discussion with a fellow
chemistry PHD and suddenly having them start defending the phlogiston
theory of combustion. His core position, as best I could follow, was this:

  1. Limitations on supply in the US, specifically limitations on new oil field development and refinery construction, are engineered by oil companies attempting to keep prices high.
  2. Oil prices are set at the whim of oil traders in London and New York, who are controlled by US oil companies.  The natural price of oil today should be $30 or $40, but oil traders keep it up at $60.  While players upstream and downstream may have limited market shares, these traders act as a choke point that controls the whole market.  All commodity markets are manipulated, or at least manipulatable, in this manner
  3. Oil supply and demand is nearly perfectly inelastic.
  4. If there really was a supply and demand reason for oil prices to shoot up to $60, then why aren’t we seeing any shortages?
  5. Oil prices only rise when Texas Republicans are in office.  They will fall back to $30 as soon as there is a Democratic president.  On the day oil executives were called to testify in front of the Democratic Congress recently, oil prices fell from $60 to $45 on that day, and then went right back up.

Ignoring the Laws of Economics (Price caps and floors)

While everyone (mostly) knows that we are suspending disbelief when the James Bond villain seems to be violating the laws of physics, there is a large cadre of folks that do believe that our economic overlords can suspend the laws of supply and demand.   As it turns out, these laws cannot be suspended, but they can certainly be ignored.  Individuals who ignore supply and demand in their investment and economic decision making are generally called "bankrupt," at least eventually, so we don’t always hear their stories (the Hunt brothers attempt to corner the silver market is probably the best example I can think of).  However, the US government has provided us with countless examples of actions that ignore economic reality.

The most typical example is in placing price caps.  The most visible example was probably the 1970′s era caps on oil, gasoline, and natural gas prices and later "windfall profit" taxes.  The result was gasoline lines and outright shortages.  With prices suppressed below the market clearing price, demand was higher and supply was lower than they would be in balance.

The my friend raised is different, one where price floors are imposed by industry participants or the government or more likely both working in concert.   The crux of my argument was not that government would shy away from protecting an industry by limiting supply, because they do this all the time. The real problem with the example at hand is that, by the laws of supply and demand, a price floor above the market clearing price should yield a supply glut.  As it turns out, supply guts associated with cartel actions to keep prices high tend to require significant, very visible, and often expensive actions to mitigate.  Consider two examples:

Realtors and their trade group have worked for years to maintain a tight cartel, demanding a 6% or higher agency fee that appears to be increasingly above the market clearing price.  The result of maintaining this price floor has been a huge glut of real estate agents.  The US is swimming in agents.  In an attempt to manage this supply down, realtors have convinced most state governments to institute onerous licensing requirements, with arcane tests written and administered by… the realtor’s trade group.  The tests are hard not because realtors really need to know this stuff, but because they are trying to keep the supply down.   And still the supply is in glut.  Outsiders who try to discount or sell their own home without a realtor (ie, bring even more cheap capacity into the system) are punished ruthlessly with blackballs.  I have moved many times and have had realtors show me over 300 houses — and you know how many For Sale By Owner homes I have been shown?  Zero.  A HUGE amount of effort is expended by the real estate industry to try to keep supply in check, a supply glut caused by holding rates artificially high.

A second example of price floors is in agriculture.  The US Government, for whatever political reasons, maintains price floors in a number of crops.  The result, of course, has been a supply glut in these commodities.  Sopping up this supply glut costs the US taxpayer billions.  In some cases the government pays to keep fields fallow, in others the government buys up extra commodities and either stores them (cheese) or gives them away overseas.  In cases like sugar, the government puts up huge tarriff barriers to imports, otherwise the market would be glutted with overseas suppliers attracted by the artificially high prices.  In fact, most of the current subsidy programs for ethanol, which makes almost zero environmental or energy policy sense, can be thought of as another government program to sop up excess farm commodity supply so the price floor can be maintained.

I guess my point from these examples is not that producers haven’t tried to impose price floors above the market clearing price, because they have.  And it is not even that these floors are not sustainable, because they can be if the government steps in to help with their coercive power and our tax money to back them.  My point is, though, that the laws of supply and demand are not suspended in these cases.  Price floors above the market clearing price lead to supply gluts, which require very extensive, highly visible, and often expensive efforts to manage.  As we turn now to oil markets, we’ll try to see if there is evidence of such actions taking place.

The reasons behind US oil production and refining capacity constraints

As to his first point, that oil companies are conspiring with the government to artificially limit oil production and refining capacity, this certainly would not be unprecedented in industry, as discussed above.  However, any historical study of these issues in the oil industry would make it really hard to reach this conclusion here.  There is a pretty clear documented record of oil companies pushing to explore more areas (ANWR, offshore) that are kept off-limits due to environmental pressures.  While we have trouble imagining the last 30 years without Alaskan oil, the US oil companies had to beg Congress to let them build the pipeline, and the issue was touch and go for a number of years.  The same story holds in refining, where environmental pressure and NIMBY concerns have prevented any new refinery construction since the 1970′s (though after years and years, we may be close in Arizona).  I know people are willing to credit oil companies with just about unlimited levels of Machiavellianism, but it would truly be a PR coup of unprecedented proportions to have maintained such a strong public stance to allow more capacity in the US while at the same time working in the back room for just the opposite.

The real reason this assertion is not credible is that capacity limitations in the US have very clearly worked against the interests of US oil companies.  In production, US companies produce on much better terms from domestic fields than they do when negotiating with totalitarian regimes overseas, and they don’t have to deal with instability issues (e.g. kidnapping in Nigeria) and expropriation concerns.  In refining, US companies have seen their market shares in refined products fall since the 1970s.  This is because when we stopped allowing refinery construction in this country, producing countries like Saudi Arabia went on a building boom.  Today, instead of importing our gasoline as crude to be refined in US refineries, we import gas directly from foreign refineries.  If the government is secretly helping oil companies maintain a refining capacity shortage in this country, someone forgot to tell them they need to raise import duties to keep foreign suppliers from taking their place.

What Oil Traders can and cannot do

As to the power of traders, I certainly believe that if the traders could move oil prices for sustained periods as much as 50% above or below the market clearing price, they would do so if it profited them.  I also think that speculative actions, and even speculative bubbles, can push commodity prices to short-term extremes that are difficult to explain by market fundamentals.  Futures contracts and options, with their built in leverage, allow even smaller players to take market-moving positions.  The question on the table, though, is whether oil traders can maintain oil prices 50% over the market clearing prices for years at a time.  I think not.

What is often forgotten is that companies like Exxon and Shell control something like 4-5% each of world production (and that number is over-stated, since much of their production is as operator for state-owned oil companies who have the real control over production rates).  As a point of comparison, this is roughly the same market Toshiba has in the US computer market and well below Acer’s.  As a result, there is not one player, or even several working in tandem, who hold any real power in crude markets.  Unless one posits, as my friend does, that NY and London traders somehow sit astride a choke point in the world markets.

But here is the real problem with saying that these traders have kept oil prices 50% above the market clearing price for the last 2-3 years:  What do they do with the supply glut?  We know from economics, as well as the historic examples reviewed above, that price floors above the clearing price should result in a supply glut.  Where is all the oil?

Return to the example of when the Hunt’s tried to corner the silver market.  Over six months, they managed to drive the price from the single digits to almost $50 an ounce.  Leverage in futures markets allowed them to control a huge chunk of the available world supply.  But to profit from it (beyond a paper profit) the Hunts either had to take delivery (which they were financially unable to do, as they were already operating form leveraged positions) or find a buyer who accepted $50 as the new "right" price for silver, which they could not.  No one wanted to buy at $50, particularly from the Hunts, since they knew the moment the Hunt’s started selling, the price would crash.  As new supplies poured onto the market at the higher prices, the only way the Hunt’s could keep the price up was to pour hundreds of millions of dollars in to buy up this excess supply.  Eventually, of course, they went bankrupt.  But remember the takeaway:  They only could maintain the artificially higher commodity price as long as they kept buying excess capacity, a leveraged Ponzi game that eventually collapsed.

So how do oil traders’ supposedly pull off this feat of keeping oil prices elevated about the market clearing price?  Well, there is only one way:  It has to be stored, either in tanks or in the ground.  The option of storing the extra supplies in tanks is absurd, especially over a period of years – after all, at its peak, $60 of silver would sit on the tip of my finger, but $60 of oil won’t fit in the trunk of my car.  The world oil storage capacity is orders of magnitude too low.  So the only real option is to store it in the ground, ie don’t allow it to get produced.

How do traders pull this off?  I have no idea.  Despite people’s image, the oil producer’s market is incredibly fragmented.  The biggest companies in the world have less than 5%, and it rapidly steps down from there. It is actually even more fragmented than that, because most oil production is co-owned by royalty holders who get a percentage of the production.  These royalty holders are a very fragmented and independent group, and will complain at the first sign of their operator not producing fast and hard enough when prices are high.  To keep the extra oil off the market, you would have to send signals to a LOT of people.  And it has to be a strong and clear signal, because price is already sending the opposite signal.  The main purpose of price is in its communication value — a $60 price tells producers a lot about what and how much oil should be produced (and by the way tells consumers how careful to be with its use).  To override this signal, with thousands of producers, to achieve exactly the opposite effect being signaled with price, without a single person breaking the pack, is impossible.  Remember our examples and the economics – a sustained effort to keep prices substantially above market clearing prices has to result in visible and extensive efforts to manage excess supply.

Also, the other point that is often forgotten is that private exchanges can only survive when both Sellers AND buyers perceive them to be fair.  Buyers are quickly going to find alternatives to exchanges that are perceived to allow sellers to manipulate oil prices 50% above the market price for years at a time.  Remember, we think of oil sellers as Machiavellian, but oil buyers are big boys too, and are not unsophisticated dupes.  In fact, it was the private silver exchanges, in response to just such pressure, that changed their exchange rules to stop the Hunt family from continuing to try to corner the market.  They knew they needed to maintain the perception of fairness for both sellers and buyers.

Supply and Demand Elasticity

From here, the discussion started becoming, if possible, less grounded in economic reality.  In response to the supply/demand matching issues I raised, he asserted that oil demand and supply are nearly perfectly inelastic.  Well, if both supply and demand are unaffected by price, then I would certainly accept that oil is a very, very different kind of commodity.  But in fact, neither assertion is true, as shown by example here and here. In particular, supply is quite elastic.  As I have written before, there is a very wide range of investments one can make even in an old existing field to stimulate production as prices rise.  And many, many operators are doing so, as evidenced by rig counts, sales at oil field services companies, and even by spam investment pitches arriving in my in box.

I found the statement "if oil prices really belong this high, why have we not seen any shortages" to be particularly depressing.  Can anyone who sat in at least one lecture in economics 101 answer this query?  Of course, the answer is, that we have not seen shortages precisely because prices have risen, fulfilling their supply-demand matching utility, and in the process demonstrating that both supply and demand curves for oil do indeed have a slope.  In fact, shortages (e.g. gas lines or gas stations without gas at all) are typically a result of government-induced breakdowns of the pricing mechanism.  In the 1970′s, oil price controls combined with silly government interventions (such as gas distribution rules**) resulted in awful shortages and long gas lines.  More recently, fear of "price-gouging" legislation in the Katrina aftermath prevented prices from rising as much as they needed to, leading to shortages and inefficient distribution.

Manipulating Oil Prices for Political Benefit

As to manipulating oil or gas prices timed with political events (say an election or Congressional hearings), well, that is a challenge that comes up all the time.  It is possible nearly always to make this claim because there is nearly always a political event going on, so natural volatility in oil markets can always be tied to some concurrent "event."  In this specific case, the drop from $60 to $35 just for a Congressional hearing is not even coincidence, it is urban legend.  No such drop has occurred since prices hit 60, though prices did drop briefly to 50.  (I am no expert, but in this case the pricing pattern seen is fairly common for a commodity that has seen a runup, and then experiences some see-sawing as prices find their level.)

This does not mean that Congressional hearings did not have a hand in helping to drive oil price futures.  Futures traders are constantly checking a variety of tarot cards, and indications of government regulatory activity or legislation is certainly part of it.  While I guess traders purposely driving down oil prices ahead of the hearing to make oil companies look better is one possible explanation;  a more plausible one (short of coincidence, since Congress has hearings on oil and energy about every other month) is that traders might have been anticipating some regulatory outcome in advance of the hearing, that became more less likely once the hearings actually occurred.  *Shrug*  Readers are welcome to make large short bets in advance of future Congressional energy hearings if they really think the former is what is occurring.

As to a relationship between oil prices and the occupant of the White House, that is just political hubris.  As we can see, real oil prices rose during Nixon, fell during Ford, rose during Carter, fell precipitously during Reagan, were flat end to end for Bush 1 (though with a rise in the middle) and flat end to end for Clinton.  I can’t see a pattern.

If Oil Companies Arbitrarily Set Prices, Why Aren’t They Making More Money?

A couple of final thoughts.  First, in these heady days of "windfall" profits, Exxon-Mobil is making a profit margin of about 9% – 10% of sales, which is a pretty average to low industrial profit margin.  So if they really have the power to manipulate oil prices at whim, why aren’t they making more money?  In fact, for the two decades from 1983 to 2002, real oil prices languished at levels that put many smaller oil operators out of business and led to years of layoffs and down sizings at oil companies.  Profit margins even for the larges players was 6-8% of sales, below the average for industrial companies.  In fact, here is the profitability, as a percent of sales, for Exxon-Mobil over the last 5 years:

2006:  10.5%

2005:  9.7%

2004:  8.5%

2003:  8.5%

2002:  5.4%

2001:  7.1%

Before 2001, going back to the early 80′s, Exxon’s profits were a dog.  Over the last five years, the best five years they have had in decades, their return on average assets has been 14.58%, which is probably less than most public utility commissions allow their regulated utilities.  So who had their hand on the pricing throttle through those years, because they sure weren’t doing a very good job!  But if you really want to take these profits away (and in the process nuke all the investment incentives in the industry) you could get yourself a 15 to 20 cent decrease in gas prices.  Don’t spend it all in one place.

** One of the odder and forgotten pieces of legislation during and after the 1972 oil embargo was the law that divided the country into zones (I don’t remember how, by counties perhaps).  It then said that an oil company had to deliver the same proportion of gas to each zone as it did in the prior year  (yes, someone clearly took this right out of directive 10-289).  It seemed that every Representative somehow suspected that oil companies in some other district would mysteriously be hoarding gas to their district’s detriment.  Whatever the reason, the law ignored the fact that use patterns were always changing, but were particularly different during this shortage.  Everyone canceled plans for that long-distance drive to Yellowstone.  The rural interstate gas stations saw demand fall way off.  However, the law forced oil companies to send just as much gas to these stations (proportionally) as they had the prior year.  The result was that rural interstates were awash in gas, while cities had run dry.  Thanks again Congress.

Something that Flabbergasts Me

Since 1972, oil company executives have, like clockwork, been dragged up to Washington every five years to defend themselves against charges that they have cartelized the oil industry with the express purpose of limiting supply and driving up prices to consumers.  Over the last 10 years, and particularly post-Katrina, scrutiny has fallen heavily on US refiners to justify refined product supply shortfalls and resulting price spikes.

So, after years of demagoguing oil companies for purposefully limiting refining capacity and output to drive up gasoline prices, Democrats in Congress are on the verge of passing Waxman-Markey, which will have the very focused and predictable result of... limiting US refining output and driving up gas prices.  In fact, the only possible way it will achieve its goals of limiting CO2 output is if it is wildly successful in reducing gasoline supply and driving up gas prices.  Amazing.

Yet more proor that what is never OK for the [private] goose is always OK for the [public] gander.

Help Me Out, My Organic Chemistry is Rusty...

The Thin Green Line passes on an editorial from today's SF Chronicle:

California should continue to lead the way in the fight against climate change by requiring cleaner-burning fuels in this state.

The state Air Resources Board is scheduled to vote today on whether to force refiners and distributors to reduce the "carbon intensity" of the transportation fuels they sell, starting in 2011. The so-called Low Carbon Fuel Standard represents a critical step toward this state's commitment to reduce overall emissions of heat-trapping gases by a third by 2020.
Passage of a California cleaner-fuels standard would intensify the pressure on Congress to make a national commitment to promote lower-carbon options to gasoline and diesel.

Holy moly, I never thought of this?  It's brilliant!  Let's just legislate that hydrocarbons should have less carbon!  And tell the refiners to figure it out.

In all seriousness, assuming this is not just insane (which may be a poor assumption in CA) I presume they have something in mind here.  Does anyone know what opportunity they see, because I sure don't.  Here is why I am confused:

Basically transportation fuels are made up various hydrocarbon chains.  The shortest is methane, CH4, then C2H6, then C3H8, etc.  As the chains get longer, the molecule gets heavier  (for example, CH4 is a gas at room temperatures; C3H8 is propane, which is a gas but a liquid under pressure in our BBQ tanks; C8H18 is octane and liquid at normal car operating temperatures.)

Motor fuel is a careful blend of many different molecules, and is actually frighteningly complex (the above just discusses straight chain forms, there are also rings and other shaped hydrocarbon molecules).  There are literally hundreds of specs it has to meet, and several present difficult tradeoffs that must be carefully balanced.  Trying to make one spec can easily put one out of another spec.  So this is an optimization equation with a lot of constraints.

All things being equal, decreasing the carbon intensity of fuel basically means making it lighter, with shorter molecules.  Why?  Well, look at the molecular equations.  Basically a straight chain hydrocarbon is C(x)H(2x+2).  Shorter molecules get a higher ratio of their BTU's from combustion of hydrogen vs. larger molecules get a higher ratio of their BTU's from carbon.

So, it is correct that burning propane in a car vs. currently formulated gasoline will be less carbon intensive, with only the teeny tiny problem that most cars today cannot burn propane.  Modern engines are carefully built to run most efficiently (valve design, cylinder pressure and size, air mixtures, fuel injection)  on a certain range of gasoline, and that range is moderately narrow.  And, besides the pure physics of engine design, lightening up motor fuels will create a variety of secondary problems -- for example, lighter fuels tend to have higher vapor pressures and volatility that can cause vapor lock in engines on warm days.  Another way to reduce carbon intensity is to go from ring molecules (e.g. benzine) to straight chains of the same size, but this creates other problems, for example in maintaining octane numbers.

And speaking of unintended consequences, my understanding is that environmentalists like diesel engines, because the best diesel technologies today are far more efficient than gasoline engines.  But diesel is a heavier, more "carbon intensive" fuel than gasoline.  So is the carbon dioxide emissions from a heavier fuel in an engine that is more efficient less or more than a typical gasoline engine?  Who knows, and the answer is probably "it depends" anyway.

Update: I think I have figured it out.  The California legislature is going to mandate changing the size of the 2p valance shell, allowing more hydrogen molecules per given carbon molecule.

Someone Else Joins the "Peak Whale" Bandwaggon

Katherine Mangu-Ward makes a point I have also made on occasion:

take a moment to thank the man who really saved the whales: John D. Rockefeller.

In
1846, Americans dominated the whaling industry with 735 ships. John D.
Rockefeller gets into the oil refining business in 1865. By 1876,
kerosene is routing whale oil, and the whaling fleet was down to 39 ships, because kerosene was just so darn cheap:

The
price of sperm oil reached its high of $1.77 per gallon in 1856; by
1896 it sold for 40 cents per gallon. Yet it could not keep pace with
the price of refined petroleum, which dropped from 59 cents per gallon
in 1865 to a fraction over seven cents per gallon in 1895.

This dynamic is also instructive for those fretting that we're going to run out of oil,
just as many undoubtedly worried that we were going to run out of
whales. (Note to self: Check historical record for instances of the
phrase "Peak Whale.")

I don't want to be overly self-referential here, but I actually "found" this reference to peak whale theory over two years ago when digging through the archives of this blog's 19th century predecessor, the Coyote Broadsheet:

As the US Population reaches toward the astronomical
total of 40 million persons, we are reaching the limits of the number
of people this earth can support.    If one were to extrapolate current
population growth rates, this country in a hundred years could have
over 250 million people in it!  Now of course, that figure is
impossible - the farmland of this country couldn't possibly support
even half this number.  But it is interesting to consider the
environmental consequences.

Take the issue of transportation.  Currently there are over 11
million horses in this country, the feeding and care of which
constitute a significant part of our economy.  A population of 250
million would imply the need for nearly 70 million horses in this
country, and this is even before one considers the fact that "horse
intensity", or the average number of horses per family, has been
increasing steadily over the last several decades.  It is not
unreasonable, therefore, to assume that so many people might need 100
million horses to fulfill all their transportation needs.  There is
just no way this admittedly bountiful nation could support 100 million
horses.  The disposal of their manure alone would create an
environmental problem of unprecedented magnitude.

Or, take the case of illuminant.  As the population grows, the
demand for illuminant should grow at least as quickly.  However, whale
catches and therefore whale oil supply has leveled off of late, such
that many are talking about the "peak whale" phenomena, which refers to
the theory that whale oil production may have already passed its peak.
250 million people would use up the entire supply of the world's whales
four or five times over, leaving none for poorer nations of the world.

I wrote more about John D. Rockefeller (including his role in saving the whales) in my praise of Robber Barrons several years ago.  In addition to Rockefeller, the article also discussed Cornelius Vanderbilt as the 19th century precursor to Southwest Airlines.  From the Harper's Magazine in 1859:

...the results in every case of the establishment of opposition lines
by Vanderbilt has been the permanent reduction of fares.  Wherever he
'laid on' an opposition line, the fares were instantly reduced, and
however the contest terminated, whether he bought out his opponents, as
he often did, or they bought him out, the fares were never again raise
to the old standard.  This great boon -- cheap travel-- this community
owes mainly to Cornelius Vanderbilt".

While We Are On The Subject of Oil...

Glen Reynolds brings us this:

A provision in the US Carbon Neutral Government Act incorporated
into the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 act effectively
bars the US government from buying fuels that have greater life-cycle
emissions than fuels produced from conventional petroleum sources.

The United States has defined Alberta oilsands as unconventional
because the bitumen mined from the ground requires upgrading and
refining as opposed to the traditional crude pumped from oil wells.

California Democrat Representative Henry Waxman, chairman of the
House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and Republican Tom
Davis added the clause.

Uh, right.  Since we all burn pure unrefined crude oil pumped right from the oil well in our car. 

Here is what a traditional crude oil goes through before it becomes gasoline:

  • Water and salt must be removed
  • The oil is heated up to over 700 degrees, and is separated into its fractions via distillation.  Oil is made up of hydrocarbon chains of many lengths, from short ones (methane, ethane, propane) to very long ones (asphalt, heavy motor oils).  Gasoline is somewhere in between.
  • Each fraction generally has to be de-sulfurized.  This generally occurs by injecting hydrogen into the fraction across a catalyst bed to remove the sulfur as Hydrogen Sulfide, a dangerous gas that must be further processed to produce pure sulfur.
  • The gasoline fractions in a typical oil are nowhere near large enough for the relative demand.  So additional steps must be taken to produce gasoline:
    • Very heavy fractions have their molecules cracked at high temperatures, either in cokers, high temperature crackers or in fluid catalyst bed crackers.  These processes either remove carbon in its pure form or remove it by combining it with hydrogen
    • Certain fractions are reformed in combination with hyrdrogen, sometimes across a platinum catalyst, to produce molecules with better properties for gasoline, including higher octane.
    • All over a refinery, there are small units that take individual fractions that use a variety of processes to create specific molecules that have useful properties
  • All of these different fractions and products are blended in various proportions to make different grades of gasoline.  These blends and proportions can change from city to city (to meet environmental regulations, Phoenix must have a gasoline blend that is unique in the US) and must change season to season (gas that burns well in winter will vapor lock in the summer time).

I am sure I left tons of steps out, but you get the idea.  Below are my old digs at Exxon's Baytown Texas Refinery, where I worked as an engineer for 3 years out of college:

Baytown2  Baytown_2

Wither Supply and Demand, In Favor of the Oil Trading Cabal?

I had an odd and slightly depressing conversation with a friend the other night.  He is quite intelligent and well-educated, and in business is probably substantially more successful, at least financially, than I.

Somehow we got in a discussion of oil markets, and he seemed to find my position suggesting that oil prices are generally set by supply and demand laughable, so much so he eventually gave up with me as one might give up and change the subject on someone who insists the Apollo moon landings were faked. I found the conversation odd, like having a discussion with a fellow
chemistry PHD and suddenly having them start defending the phlogiston
theory of combustion. His core position, as best I could follow, was this:

  1. Limitations on supply in the US, specifically limitations on new oil field development and refinery construction, are engineered by oil companies attempting to keep prices high.
  2. Oil prices are set at the whim of oil traders in London and New York, who are controlled by US oil companies.  The natural price of oil today should be $30 or $40, but oil traders keep it up at $60.  While players upstream and downstream may have limited market shares, these traders act as a choke point that controls the whole market.  All commodity markets are manipulated, or at least manipulatable, in this manner
  3. Oil supply and demand is nearly perfectly inelastic. 
  4. If there really was a supply and demand reason for oil prices to shoot up to $60, then why aren't we seeing any shortages?
  5. Oil prices only rise when Texas Republicans are in office.  They will fall back to $30 as soon as there is a Democratic president.  On the day oil executives were called to testify in front of the Democratic Congress recently, oil prices fell from $60 to $45 on that day, and then went right back up.

Ignoring the Laws of Economics (Price caps and floors)

While everyone (mostly) knows that we are suspending disbelief when the James Bond villain seems to be violating the laws of physics, there is a large cadre of folks that do believe that our economic overlords can suspend the laws of supply and demand.   As it turns out, these laws cannot be suspended, but they can certainly be ignored.  Individuals who ignore supply and demand in their investment and economic decision making are generally called "bankrupt," at least eventually, so we don't always hear their stories (the Hunt brothers attempt to corner the silver market is probably the best example I can think of).  However, the US government has provided us with countless examples of actions that ignore economic reality.

The most typical example is in placing price caps.  The most visible example was probably the 1970's era caps on oil, gasoline, and natural gas prices and later "windfall profit" taxes.  The result was gasoline lines and outright shortages.  With prices suppressed below the market clearing price, demand was higher and supply was lower than they would be in balance. 

The my friend raised is different, one where price floors are imposed by industry participants or the government or more likely both working in concert.   The crux of my argument was not that government would shy away from protecting an industry by limiting supply, because they do this all the time. The real problem with the example at hand is that, by the laws of supply and demand, a price floor above the market clearing price should yield a supply glut.  As it turns out, supply guts associated with cartel actions to keep prices high tend to require significant, very visible, and often expensive actions to mitigate.  Consider two examples:

Realtors and their trade group have worked for years to maintain a tight cartel, demanding a 6% or higher agency fee that appears to be increasingly above the market clearing price.  The result of maintaining this price floor has been a huge glut of real estate agents.  The US is swimming in agents.  In an attempt to manage this supply down, realtors have convinced most state governments to institute onerous licensing requirements, with arcane tests written and administered by... the realtor's trade group.  The tests are hard not because realtors really need to know this stuff, but because they are trying to keep the supply down.   And still the supply is in glut.  Outsiders who try to discount or sell their own home without a realtor (ie, bring even more cheap capacity into the system) are punished ruthlessly with blackballs.  I have moved many times and have had realtors show me over 300 houses -- and you know how many For Sale By Owner homes I have been shown?  Zero.  A HUGE amount of effort is expended by the real estate industry to try to keep supply in check, a supply glut caused by holding rates artificially high. 

A second example of price floors is in agriculture.  The US Government, for whatever political reasons, maintains price floors in a number of crops.  The result, of course, has been a supply glut in these commodities.  Sopping up this supply glut costs the US taxpayer billions.  In some cases the government pays to keep fields fallow, in others the government buys up extra commodities and either stores them (cheese) or gives them away overseas.  In cases like sugar, the government puts up huge tarriff barriers to imports, otherwise the market would be glutted with overseas suppliers attracted by the artificially high prices.  In fact, most of the current subsidy programs for ethanol, which makes almost zero environmental or energy policy sense, can be thought of as another government program to sop up excess farm commodity supply so the price floor can be maintained.

I guess my point from these examples is not that producers haven't tried to impose price floors above the market clearing price, because they have.  And it is not even that these floors are not sustainable, because they can be if the government steps in to help with their coercive power and our tax money to back them.  My point is, though, that the laws of supply and demand are not suspended in these cases.  Price floors above the market clearing price lead to supply gluts, which require very extensive, highly visible, and often expensive efforts to manage.  As we turn now to oil markets, we'll try to see if there is evidence of such actions taking place.

The reasons behind US oil production and refining capacity constraints

As to his first point, that oil companies are conspiring with the government to artificially limit oil production and refining capacity, this certainly would not be unprecedented in industry, as discussed above.  However, any historical study of these issues in the oil industry would make it really hard to reach this conclusion here.  There is a pretty clear documented record of oil companies pushing to explore more areas (ANWR, offshore) that are kept off-limits due to environmental pressures.  While we have trouble imagining the last 30 years without Alaskan oil, the US oil companies had to beg Congress to let them build the pipeline, and the issue was touch and go for a number of years.  The same story holds in refining, where environmental pressure and NIMBY concerns have prevented any new refinery construction since the 1970's (though after years and years, we may be close in Arizona).  I know people are willing to credit oil companies with just about unlimited levels of Machiavellianism, but it would truly be a PR coup of unprecedented proportions to have maintained such a strong public stance to allow more capacity in the US while at the same time working in the back room for just the opposite.

The real reason this assertion is not credible is that capacity limitations in the US have very clearly worked against the interests of US oil companies.  In production, US companies produce on much better terms from domestic fields than they do when negotiating with totalitarian regimes overseas, and they don't have to deal with instability issues (e.g. kidnapping in Nigeria) and expropriation concerns.  In refining, US companies have seen their market shares in refined products fall since the 1970s.  This is because when we stopped allowing refinery construction in this country, producing countries like Saudi Arabia went on a building boom.  Today, instead of importing our gasoline as crude to be refined in US refineries, we import gas directly from foreign refineries.  If the government is secretly helping oil companies maintain a refining capacity shortage in this country, someone forgot to tell them they need to raise import duties to keep foreign suppliers from taking their place. 

What Oil Traders can and cannot do

As to the power of traders, I certainly believe that if the traders could move oil prices for sustained periods as much as 50% above or below the market clearing price, they would do so if it profited them.  I also think that speculative actions, and even speculative bubbles, can push commodity prices to short-term extremes that are difficult to explain by market fundamentals.  Futures contracts and options, with their built in leverage, allow even smaller players to take market-moving positions.  The question on the table, though, is whether oil traders can maintain oil prices 50% over the market clearing prices for years at a time.  I think not.

What is often forgotten is that companies like Exxon and Shell control something like 4-5% each of world production (and that number is over-stated, since much of their production is as operator for state-owned oil companies who have the real control over production rates).  As a point of comparison, this is roughly the same market Toshiba has in the US computer market and well below Acer's.  As a result, there is not one player, or even several working in tandem, who hold any real power in crude markets.  Unless one posits, as my friend does, that NY and London traders somehow sit astride a choke point in the world markets.

But here is the real problem with saying that these traders have kept oil prices 50% above the market clearing price for the last 2-3 years:  What do they do with the supply glut?  We know from economics, as well as the historic examples reviewed above, that price floors above the clearing price should result in a supply glut.  Where is all the oil?

Return to the example of when the Hunt's tried to corner the silver market.  Over six months, they managed to drive the price from the single digits to almost $50 an ounce.  Leverage in futures markets allowed them to control a huge chunk of the available world supply.  But to profit from it (beyond a paper profit) the Hunts either had to take delivery (which they were financially unable to do, as they were already operating form leveraged positions) or find a buyer who accepted $50 as the new "right" price for silver, which they could not.  No one wanted to buy at $50, particularly from the Hunts, since they knew the moment the Hunt's started selling, the price would crash.  As new supplies poured onto the market at the higher prices, the only way the Hunt's could keep the price up was to pour hundreds of millions of dollars in to buy up this excess supply.  Eventually, of course, they went bankrupt.  But remember the takeaway:  They only could maintain the artificially higher commodity price as long as they kept buying excess capacity, a leveraged Ponzi game that eventually collapsed.

So how do oil traders' supposedly pull off this feat of keeping oil prices elevated about the market clearing price?  Well, there is only one way:  It has to be stored, either in tanks or in the ground.  The option of storing the extra supplies in tanks is absurd, especially over a period of years - after all, at its peak, $60 of silver would sit on the tip of my finger, but $60 of oil won't fit in the trunk of my car.  The world oil storage capacity is orders of magnitude too low.  So the only real option is to store it in the ground, ie don't allow it to get produced. 

How do traders pull this off?  I have no idea.  Despite people's image, the oil producer's market is incredibly fragmented.  The biggest companies in the world have less than 5%, and it rapidly steps down from there. It is actually even more fragmented than that, because most oil production is co-owned by royalty holders who get a percentage of the production.  These royalty holders are a very fragmented and independent group, and will complain at the first sign of their operator not producing fast and hard enough when prices are high.  To keep the extra oil off the market, you would have to send signals to a LOT of people.  And it has to be a strong and clear signal, because price is already sending the opposite signal.  The main purpose of price is in its communication value -- a $60 price tells producers a lot about what and how much oil should be produced (and by the way tells consumers how careful to be with its use).  To override this signal, with thousands of producers, to achieve exactly the opposite effect being signaled with price, without a single person breaking the pack, is impossible.  Remember our examples and the economics - a sustained effort to keep prices substantially above market clearing prices has to result in visible and extensive efforts to manage excess supply.

Also, the other point that is often forgotten is that private exchanges can only survive when both Sellers AND buyers perceive them to be fair.  Buyers are quickly going to find alternatives to exchanges that are perceived to allow sellers to manipulate oil prices 50% above the market price for years at a time.  Remember, we think of oil sellers as Machiavellian, but oil buyers are big boys too, and are not unsophisticated dupes.  In fact, it was the private silver exchanges, in response to just such pressure, that changed their exchange rules to stop the Hunt family from continuing to try to corner the market.  They knew they needed to maintain the perception of fairness for both sellers and buyers.

Supply and Demand Elasticity

From here, the discussion started becoming, if possible, less grounded in economic reality.  In response to the supply/demand matching issues I raised, he asserted that oil demand and supply are nearly perfectly inelastic.  Well, if both supply and demand are unaffected by price, then I would certainly accept that oil is a very, very different kind of commodity.  But in fact, neither assertion is true, as shown by example here and here.  In particular, supply is quite elastic.  As I have written before, there is a very wide range of investments one can make even in an old existing field to stimulate production as prices rise.  And many, many operators are doing so, as evidenced by rig counts, sales at oil field services companies, and even by spam investment pitches arriving in my in box.

I found the statement "if oil prices really belong this high, why have we not seen any shortages" to be particularly depressing.  Can anyone who sat in at least one lecture in economics 101 answer this query?  Of course, the answer is, that we have not seen shortages precisely because prices have risen, fulfilling their supply-demand matching utility, and in the process demonstrating that both supply and demand curves for oil do indeed have a slope.  In fact, shortages (e.g. gas lines or gas stations without gas at all) are typically a result of government-induced breakdowns of the pricing mechanism.  In the 1970's, oil price controls combined with silly government interventions (such as gas distribution rules**) resulted in awful shortages and long gas lines.  More recently, fear of "price-gouging" legislation in the Katrina aftermath prevented prices from rising as much as they needed to, leading to shortages and inefficient distribution.

Manipulating Oil Prices for Political Benefit

As to manipulating oil or gas prices timed with political events (say an election or Congressional hearings), well, that is a challenge that comes up all the time.  It is possible nearly always to make this claim because there is nearly always a political event going on, so natural volatility in oil markets can always be tied to some concurrent "event."  In this specific case, the drop from $60 to $35 just for a Congressional hearing is not even coincidence, it is urban legend.  No such drop has occurred since prices hit 60, though prices did drop briefly to 50.  (I am no expert, but in this case the pricing pattern seen is fairly common for a commodity that has seen a runup, and then experiences some see-sawing as prices find their level.)

This does not mean that Congressional hearings did not have a hand in helping to drive oil price futures.  Futures traders are constantly checking a variety of tarot cards, and indications of government regulatory activity or legislation is certainly part of it.  While I guess traders purposely driving down oil prices ahead of the hearing to make oil companies look better is one possible explanation;  a more plausible one (short of coincidence, since Congress has hearings on oil and energy about every other month) is that traders might have been anticipating some regulatory outcome in advance of the hearing, that became more less likely once the hearings actually occurred.  *Shrug*  Readers are welcome to make large short bets in advance of future Congressional energy hearings if they really think the former is what is occurring. 

As to a relationship between oil prices and the occupant of the White House, that is just political hubris.  As we can see, real oil prices rose during Nixon, fell during Ford, rose during Carter, fell precipitously during Reagan, were flat end to end for Bush 1 (though with a rise in the middle) and flat end to end for Clinton.  I can't see a pattern.

If Oil Companies Arbitrarily Set Prices, Why Aren't They Making More Money?

A couple of final thoughts.  First, in these heady days of "windfall" profits, Exxon-Mobil is making a profit margin of about 9% - 10% of sales, which is a pretty average to low industrial profit margin.  So if they really have the power to manipulate oil prices at whim, why aren't they making more money?  In fact, for the two decades from 1983 to 2002, real oil prices languished at levels that put many smaller oil operators out of business and led to years of layoffs and down sizings at oil companies.  Profit margins even for the larges players was 6-8% of sales, below the average for industrial companies.  In fact, here is the profitability, as a percent of sales, for Exxon-Mobil over the last 5 years:

2006:  10.5%

2005:  9.7%

2004:  8.5%

2003:  8.5%

2002:  5.4%

2001:  7.1%

Before 2001, going back to the early 80's, Exxon's profits were a dog.  Over the last five years, the best five years they have had in decades, their return on average assets has been 14.58%, which is probably less than most public utility commissions allow their regulated utilities.  So who had their hand on the pricing throttle through those years, because they sure weren't doing a very good job!  But if you really want to take these profits away (and in the process nuke all the investment incentives in the industry) you could get yourself a 15 to 20 cent decrease in gas prices.  Don't spend it all in one place.

** One of the odder and forgotten pieces of legislation during and after the 1972 oil embargo was the law that divided the country into zones (I don't remember how, by counties perhaps).  It then said that an oil company had to deliver the same proportion of gas to each zone as it did in the prior year  (yes, someone clearly took this right out of directive 10-289).  It seemed that every Representative somehow suspected that oil companies in some other district would mysteriously be hoarding gas to their district's detriment.  Whatever the reason, the law ignored the fact that use patterns were always changing, but were particularly different during this shortage.  Everyone canceled plans for that long-distance drive to Yellowstone.  The rural interstate gas stations saw demand fall way off.  However, the law forced oil companies to send just as much gas to these stations (proportionally) as they had the prior year.  The result was that rural interstates were awash in gas, while cities had run dry.  Thanks again Congress.

BMOC Online Reviews

I am a little behind on my email, so I am late in posting some of the reviews coming in on my book BMOC.  My habit is to post every review I can find, positive or negative.  Let me know by email if you have a review and I will link it as well.  Some of the reviewers below seem to like the book a lot, while some are more lukewarm, but I thank everyone for reading it and taking the time to post a thoughtful review.

After years of practice with non-fiction, I am still refining my fiction voice and style.  It is hard to over-emphasize how important it is to get critical feedback from people who are not a) paid by me, i.e. editors or b) friends and family, who make up most everyone's first readers.  I am already learning a lot from reviews about what works and doesn't work, what is interesting, and what comes off as a cliche.   And of course I continue to be proud that I have some of the smartest readers in the blogosphere.  Thanks.  [Of course I am going to quote the good stuff, but click through to see everything]

Human Advancement (what a beautiful web design he has)

I picked it up Christmas morning, with the intention of reading a
chapter or two in that little lull that always comes after the presents
are opened. You've heard the cliche "I couldn't put it down"? Well,
next thing I knew dinner was ready, and after eating I picked it right
back up and finished it.

I had kind of assumed it would be another one of those libertarian
fantasy novels. You know the kind, Montana secedes from the US; or a
small band of people decide they won't take it any more and go off
somewhere to found their own government; or a lone rebel plots to take
down the system by finding and eliminating the few key people who keep
it going, etc. I've taken to calling it "LibFic". So I thought this
would be more of the same: a book from a fellow libertarian blogger
whom I've had on my blogroll almost since I started this, and a book
that was in a niche - a very narrow niche - that I like.

Turns out that it was a pretty mainstream corporate espionage novel,
complete with a murder to be solved, a young, attractive and competent
protagonist, and more than one opening for a sequel. It fits the genre
that is popular today, (with dramatic but generic names like "Malice of
Intent"), and as such is entertainment, not great literature. But it is
a good story, and while it is not overtly libertarian (seems that
Warren forgot to include the 70-page speech painfully "integrated" into
the plot that outlines his entire philosphical edifice), it does have a
refreshing libertarian sensibility that is usually absent from books in
that genre....

In the process, the book paints a picture of the media/legal/government
complex that is as damning as the portrayals of the
military/industrial complex, or the profit/oppression complex that is
usual the root of all evil. Warren pulls this off without lengthy
digressions to explain to us that this cabal exists, and why it is so
bad. Instead, he just shows it in action, and each example serves not
to "interrupt our plot for this important message", but to further the
plot and to draw the characters.

The Unrepentant Individual  (great blog name)

Pagan Vigil  (does everyone have a better blog name than mine?)

Dispatches from TJICistan (I wish he would stop making me feel guilty with his workout synopses)

 

There is also a nice 5-star review on Amazon.   You can also get a low-cost pdf version here.  And I have posted the first 8 chapters starting here.

Please, Let There Be Gas Price Gouging

Katrina comes at a very bad time for US gasoline markets.  Supplies are already tight, and now a substantial amount of US oil production and refining capacity are shut in, for an unknown period of time.  Long ago, I worked as an engineer in a refinery and it can take days to get everything restarted from a cold start.  The result will almost certainly be near-term gas shortages.

There are two ways this can play out:  1)  a short term spike in prices, as much as a dollar or more a gallon or 2) long and irritating gas lines.  Lets hope that prices are allowed to reach their level and gas lines can be avoided, but who knows what political stupidities (ala Hawaii) will be proposed. 

I really, really hate gas lines.  I hate the uncertainty of whether or not I can find a station open.  I hate refilling my tank every day to make sure I am not caught short.  And for those of you who say I am arrogant since I can afford higher prices but the poor cannot, I assure you that folks who are paid by the hour are hurt much worse waiting around for hours in gas lines than the mere irritation I encounter.  More on gas line expectations as a semi-self-fulfilling prophecy here.

PS-  Expect to see news of a refinery fire or explosion over the next week.  The risk of accidents is very high when these complex plants have to start up -- they weren't really meant to be turned on and off.

Update:  First signs of a gas shortage?
Update #2:  The Mises Blog has a roundup of economics posts supporting price spikes during spot shortages (popularly known as gouging).
Update #3:  Jane Galt has more in praise of price gouging

In Praise of "Robber Barons"

After seeing a piece of my son's history curriculum at school, I realized for about the hundredth time just how poor an understanding most people have about the great industrialists of the 19th century, so unfairly painted as "robber barons".  While it is said that "history is written by the victors", I would observe that despite the fact that socialism and communism have been given a pretty good drubbing over the last 20 years, these statists still seem to be writing history.  How else to explain the fact that men who made fortunes through free, voluntary exchange of products can be called "robber barons"; while politicians who expropriate billions by force without permission from the most productive in society are called "progressive".

To be sure, capitalists of the 19th century sometimes played by rules very different from ours today, but in most cases those were the rules of the day and most of what they did was entirely legal.  Also to be sure, there were a number of men who were fat ticks on society, making money through fraud and manipulation rather than real wealth creation (Daniel Drew comes to mind).  However, most of the great industrialists of the 19th century made money by providing customers with a better, cheaper product.  In the rest of this post, I will look at two examples.

The first is Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt, the person to whom the term robber baron was originally applied (by the New York Times, interestingly enough - some things never change).  While Vanderbilt is perhaps best known for his New York Central railroad, the term was actually applied to him earlier in life in his shipping days, where he made a fortune running steamships in and out of New York City.  Vanderbilt stood accused of overly predatory tactics in moving into rivals territories.  However, in 1859 Harpers Weekly observed (via An Empire of Wealth by John Steele Gordon):

...the results in every case of the establishment of opposition lines by Vanderbilt has been the permanent reduction of fares.  Wherever he 'laid on' an opposition line, the fares were instantly reduced, and however the contest terminated, whether he bought out his opponents, as he often did, or they bought him out, the fares were never again raise to the old standard.  This great boon -- cheap travel-- this community owes mainly to Cornelius Vanderbilt". (sorry, no link available -- I guess they weren't putting their articles online in 1859)

In many ways, Vanderbilt was the Southwest Airlines of his day, and, just like with Southwest today, towns begged for him to serve them because they knew he would bring down rates.  In fact, there is actually another parallel with Southwest Airlines.  In the early days of Southwest, most of the airline industry was regulated such that new entrants competing at lower prices were pretty much excluded by government rules.  Southwest got around these rules by flying only in Texas, where interstate rules did not apply.  Their success in Texas was a large reason for the eventual demise of government regulation that effectively protected fat and inefficient incumbent airlines, with drastically lower fairs the result.

When Vanderbilt first entered the steamship business, most routes were given as exclusive charters to protected monopoly companies, most run by men with friends in the state government.  Vanderbilt took on the constitutionality of these government enforced monopolies and, with the help of Daniel Webster, won their case in the Supreme Court.  Within a decade, the horrible experiment with government monopoly charters was mostly over, much to the benefit of everyone.  While private monopolies have always proved themselves to be unstable and last only as long as the company provides top value to customers, publicly enforced monopolies can survive for years, despite any amount of corruption and incompetence.  Vanderbilt, by helping to kill these publicly enforced monopolies, did more than perhaps any other man in US history to help defeat entrenched monopolies, yet today most would call him a monopolist. 

By the way, there are two charges against Vanderbilt that partially stick.   Those are that he bribed legislators and that he sought out price fixing agreements with his competitors.  Both are true, but both need context. 

To understand the bribery, one has to recognize that NY state passed a law that you could not be convicted of bribery solely on the evidence of the other party involved in the bribe.  In other words, they effectively made bribery legal as long as you were smart enough to do it without witnesses.  The real corruption was in the NY legislature at the time.  While Vanderbilt's motives were likely not always pure, no one who understands the state of NY at the time would deny that Vanderbilt would have been gutted had he not pro-actively played the bribery game himself in Albany in self-defense.

The price-fixing charge is even easier to deal with in context - basically price fixing agreements were entirely legal at the time.  In fact, price-fixing has been thought necessary, particularly in transportation, by politicians of all stripes for centuries - remember as late as the 1970's we had government enforced price-fixing in railroads and airlines.  In the 1930's, FDR via the NRA briefly instituted a government price-collusion scheme on the entire economy.

My other featured industrialist here on hug-a-robber-baron day here at Coyote Blog is John D. Rockefeller.  At one point of time, Rockefeller controlled 90% of the refining capacity in the country via his Standard Oil trust.  He was and is often excoriated for his accumulation of wealth and market share in the oil business, but critics are hard-pressed to point to specifics of where his consumers were hurt.  Here are the facts, via Reason

Standard Oil began in 1870, when kerosene cost 30 cents a gallon. By 1897, Rockefeller's scientists and managers had driven the price to under 6 cents per gallon, and many of his less-efficient competitors were out of business--including companies whose inferior grades of kerosene were prone to explosion and whose dangerous wares had depressed the demand for the product. Standard Oil did the same for petroleum: In a single decade, from 1880 to 1890, Rockefeller's consolidations helped drive petroleum prices down 61 percent while increasing output 393 percent.

By the way, Greenpeace should have a picture of John D. Rockefeller on the wall of every office.  Rockefeller, by driving down the cost of Kerosene as an illuminant, did more than any other person in the history to save the whales.  By making Kerosene cheap, people were willing to give up whale oil, dealing a mortal blow to the whaling industry (perhaps just in time for the Sperm Whale).

So Rockefeller grew because he had the lowest cost position in the industry, and was able to offer the lowest prices, and the country was hurt, how?  Sure, he drove competitors out of business at times through harsh tactics, but most of these folks were big boys who knew the rules and engaged in most of the same practices.  In fact, Rockefeller seldom ran competitors entirely out of business but rather put pressured on them until they sold out, usually on very fair terms.

From "Money, Greed, and Risk," author Charles Morris

An extraordinary combination of piratical entrepreneur and steady-handed corporate administrator, he achieved dominance primarily by being more farsighted, more technologically advanced, more ruthlessly focused on costs and efficiency than anyone else. When Rockefeller was consolidating the refining industry in the 1870s, for example, he simply invited competitors to his office and showed them his books. One refiner - who quickly sold out on favorable terms - was 'astounded' that Rockefeller could profitably sell kerosene at a price far below his own cost of production.   

More here. In fact, many, many of these defeated competitors became millionaires in their own right with the appreciation of the Standard Oil stock they got in the merger.

Eventually the Standard Oil monopoly weakened as most private monopolies do.  Monopolies seldom if ever engage in the price-increase games everyone expects them to, but they do get risk averse and lose vitality over time without serious competition.  This indeed did happen to Standard Oil, and it missed a number of key market turns, such as the Texas oil boom.  By the time is was broken up under the Sherman anti-trust act, Standard's market share had already fallen to 60%.  As would be the case many times in history, the government acted on the economic "threat" of Standard Oil at the very time the market was already doing the job.

Ever since, people have expended a lot of unnecessary energy getting worried about bigness and monopolies in industry.  I always laugh when "progressives" decry the monopoly power of the oil industry to manage prices.  I worked for the oil industry in the 80s, and if they had the power to manage prices they sure were doing a crappy job of it.  If someone thinks that oil companies have been manipulating prices, they have to explain this chart to me.  If prices are manipulated at all, they look like they are being kept low and stable.

Another great example of monopoly paranoia is the near continuous Microsoft-bashing in the courts.  The most famous anti-trust case was the successful case by Netscape and numerous other Microsoft competitors attempting to kneecap Microsoft, nominally for monopolizing the browser market.  Now lets leave aside the obvious issue of just how consumers are getting hurt by being given a free browser by Microsoft.  The plaintiffs apparently successful argument (incredibly) was that through a series of technology and marketing moves, Microsoft prevented competition.  If that is so, if competing with Microsoft is so hard, then why are 30% of my visitors using Firefox when none used it a year ago.  I use Firefox, and you know what, it took me about 5 minutes to download, install it and start running it.  Boom, monopoly gone.  Lots more on anti-trust here.

UPDATE:  Welcome to the Greenwich Public Schools.  Thanks for linking me from your web site.  Despite my Arizona home today, I actually lived in Greenwich for a while growing up.  You can find other essays on capitalism and individual freedoms here and here, or you can check out Dave Berry, who is much funnier than I am.  If you are looking for a stronger defense of free markets than you can find in most public schools, a good place to start is at the Cato Institute.