Saturday, October 04, 2008

Gusher of Lies

Of all the slogans bandied in this political campaign season, perhaps the one that most depresses me is, "energy independence." Doubly wounding is the fact that it's touted by both parties and many of my own friends. After my reading of economics, which has admittedly not been particularly broad, but at least has been of high quality--Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell--I remain convinced that the idea of American energy independence is a fantasy only sustained by a fundamental misunderstanding, and even ignorance, of how the world energy economy functions. To gain further understanding myself, I'm currently reading Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusion of "Energy Independence" by Robert Bryce.

Consider some startling facts I've already gleaned from the book:
*The Motiva expansion project at the Port Arthur, Texas refinery, announced in 2006 as a joint venture between Aramco and Shell, will most likely produce 50% more motor fuel per day than the total output of all of the ethanol plants in America during the entire year of 2006.

*To replace all of the diesel fuel burned in America with biodiesel, farmers would have to plant some 716 million acres in soybeans (the favored source for making boidiesel)--that's an area about 1.6 times all the cropland now under cultivation in the United States.

*A study by the International Energy Agency reported that replacing just 5 percent of the world's oil with biofuels would require up to 20 percent of all the land on the planet that is now under cultivation.

*Even with large government subsidies, it took 13 years before the corn industry was able to produce 1 billion gallons of ethanol per year. And it took about 25 years before corn ethanol production reached 5 billion gallons per year.

The author is no fan of politicians and seems to reserve special obloquy for conservatives, however his work is carefully endnoted with original sources, and I find much of his argument (though admittedly not all) unassailable. Here's an excerpt from a section that clarified much for me:
Implicit in the arguments for energy independence is the belief that if the U.S. quits buying foreign energy, then it can deny funds to selected petrostates. isolationists who proffer this argument are ignoring the reality of the global marketplace. Oil is a global commodity. Its price is set globally, not locally. Traders at the New York Mercantile Exchange compete with bidders from Tokyo to Tulsa, and in the process, they are constantly determining the fair price of oil... Low-quality heavy crude containing high quantities of sulfur gets sold at a discount, while high-quality light sweet crude fetches a premium price.

The modern oil-trading system is remarkably efficient. And that efficiency prevents any buyer or seller in the marketplace from effectively designating the final consumer of crude or refined products. This fact was best summarized by S. Fred Singer, an emeritus professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia. "We can think of the oil market in an over-simplified way as a giant bath tub into which oil pours from many sources, where it sells at a single world price, and from which users purchase oil without regard for its origin," wrote Singer in a 2003 opinion piece for the Washington Times. He continued, "It is immaterial how much oil the U.S. imports from an unstable source. It is immaterial if our imports from Saudi Arabia rise, if they do not sell oil to us, they will sell to someone else."

As Scott Tinker, the director of the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas, points out, even if the U.S. did manage to decrease its oil consumption, that decrease "won't have a global impact on major oil exporters. In fact, quite the opposite. The big oil-exporting countries are recognizing that the future market for them is the Mid- and Far East, in countries like India and China. Increasing demand in the regions will overshadow decreased consumption in the U.S., keeping global demand above global supply."

In other words, Americans may think they are doing the right thing by burning ethanol-flavored gasoline and driving Priuses, but whatever oil the U.S. doesn't buy from the Saudis will still get sold. Every barrel of oil that goes onto the the world market is purchased by someone, somewhere. Buyers cannot deny their currency to one supplier in favor of another. Every player--no matter what percentage of their oil comes from imports--is subject to price fluctuations in the marketplace.

In other words, any attempt at energy independence will be enormously expensive, and it won't insulate the U.S. from fluctuating global oil prices. Nor will it mean that the Saudis, the Iranians, the Venezuelans, or any other oil-rich regime will suddenly be strapped for cash. And yet, there is a persistent delusion that the U.S. can control the global energy market by withdrawing from it and, in doing so, deny funds to the petrostates in the Persian Gulf and force a few reform movement in the Arab and Islamic worlds.

None of this is to say that we shouldn't be doing research in alternative energy sources, or that we shouldn't be extracting our own oil resources. It merely means that in doing so we won't be securing energy independence for ourselves, but rather doing what we have always done in the history of our country when we have exploited out natural resources and exercised scientific initiative: generating wealth.

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