Best: Cheap oil no friend to our traditional arguments
January 10, 2015
In Denver, gasoline dipped below $2 per gallon after Christmas, and I've heard rumors of $1.75. Most of us like this immensely. Not so the stock market, which has stumbled as oil prices have dipped below $50 per barrel. Cheap oil has also gummed up a variety of political arguments.
Keystone XL is at the top of the news today, as it was last fall when many political candidates, from statehouse to Congress, ran on platforms seeking "energy security." This sounds suspiciously like code for giving drilling companies and pipeline transport companies just about everything they want.
The argument on behalf of Keystone XL is that it will, with the help of our pals the Canadians, deliver us from the capriciousness of "people who don't like us," as T. Boone Pickens likes to say. Simply by approving this pipeline extension across Nebraska, South Dakota and Montana, we can bathe in bitumen and hoist the finger at Caracas, Tehran or whatever other regime impetuously challenges our supply chain.
This might be useful in case of a major international fissure, something akin to World War III. In more normal times, oil remains a global commodity, energy dense and easily transported. Whether the Canadians build pipelines across the United States or their own country makes little difference except, of course, in case of spills.
Obama critics have complained that he has shut off access to public lands for drilling. Quite a lot of access is already available. With gas at $2, do we have an emergency that justifies unfettered access?
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We've been doing nicely in oil production without the Keystone, thanks to successful exploitation of shale formations in Texas, North Dakota and even here in Colorado, where in 2013 we broke the record set in 1956 for oil production.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell trumpets the tired argument about job creation. TransCanada, the sponsor, promises 20,000 jobs. But they would be temporary, some possibly in Canada. In 2012, I followed the existing Keystone pipeline though Kansas, where local government officials told me that once the crews from Texas had left, just a handful of jobs remained. Why again is it so important to run this pipeline through Nebraska?
President Barack Obama has also had to pivot his messaging to accord with the boom in oil production. As The Washington Post has pointed out, Obama's website emphasized energy conservation but not energy production when he ran in 2008. But in a speech last October, Obama suggested a federal role in the dramatic surge that two years ago put the United States ahead of Saudi Arabia.
"So right off the bat, as soon as I came into office, we upped our investments in American energy to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and strengthen our own energy security," he said in a speech in Illinois. His goal of cutting oil imports in half, he added, was being achieved six years ahead of schedule. Mark Green on the website Energy Tomorrow said it was "a lot like the sports fan sitting in the stands with his popcorn, taking credit for what's happening on the field."
Obama critics have complained that he has shut off access to public lands for drilling. Quite a lot of access is already available. With gas at $2, do we have an emergency that justifies unfettered access? It's another old argument upended by cheap oil.
Those of us influenced by the concept of peak oil have also had our comeuppance.
The Moses to this movement was M. King Hubbert, a geologist for Shell, who, in 1956, predicted a peak production of U.S. petroleum between 1965 and 1970. It was 1970. He then predicted a peak in global oil production around the turn of the century, provided then-current trends continued. A decade ago, my bookshelf started to groan with the weight of "The End of Oil" and other books that built on Hubbert's ideas.
Daniel Yergin, the author of the Pulitzer-winning "The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power," has foretold a different trajectory. He sees a more distant peak production in perhaps 2030 or later.
Several years ago, after oil had nosed above $140 per barrel, peak oil adherents in Denver challenged Yergin to a wager. The last I heard, he had not responded.
In a way, I wagered on peak oil. In 2009, after running over a dead deer in a highway west of Denver one evening, I bought a used electric hybrid, expecting that once the recession ended we would soon be seeing $5 or even $6 gas.
But the recession is over, and gas is $2 per gallon, not $6. I don't regret investing in energy efficiency, but my economic argument for doing so at least temporarily looks frail. Mitch McConnell and I have something in common.
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