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The Chimera of Energy Indepence

…how much are Americans willing to pay for independence?…
Planet Money has a nice segment today [Oct 26] arguing that Energy Independence Wouldn’t Make Gasoline Any Cheaper. They use interviews in Canada, a net energy exporter, to make the case: prices there are neither cheap nor stable.
A simple Econ 101 framework helps. Why would a country be a net exporter (such as Saudi Arabia or Iran) rather than a net importer such as the United States? The obvious answer is because we’re not the low-cost provider. Ergo we buy from people who are.
So first, the only way we can obtain “independence” is if we are willing to pay more for energy. Listening to the presidential debates, however, the framing clearly equates independence with low prices. That can’t happen, barring a technological breakthrough that can be quickly commercialized. Solar power? Well, Arizona has plenty of sunshine days and lots of comparatively empty land. But getting power from there to the rest of the US would be a challenge. And Saudi Arabia? — they’ve even more empty land and more days of sunshine. Shipping the energy would remain the issue. But we might still not be the low-cost provider.
Second, how about price volatility? Lessening that requires that we add layers of regulation, specifically that we prohibiting exports and imports. Energy markets are global, else we’d not worry about the Middle East. If global prices go up, then so will US domestic prices unless we prohibit exports. If global prices fall, then we have to prohibit imports lest firms turn to cheaper sources. Neither presidential candidate proposes any such thing.
Then there’s the red herring of regulation. We have anecdotal evidence that we in fact err on the side of minimalism: remember BP Horizon? More generally, you’d have to make the case that we are stricter than other countries, in a way that keeps us from drilling. Now local petroleum geologists assure me that there are reserves in really, really deep water and in the far Arctic. Neither are low-cost sources, both because of the difficulty of drilling and the additional challenge of getting oil from wellhead to refinery. The barrier to greater supply – greater “independence” – remains low prices.
You’d flunk Econ 101 if you didn’t also mention the demand side. Not a hint of such from either Obama or Romney. Even the general public understands that demand-side policies require paying a higher price for energy.
So how much are Americans willing to pay for independence? My guess: not one penny.
…mike smitka…
Indeed, how much are we willing to pay for sanctions on Iran? – my hunch is “zero”. But sanctions are working in an economic sense: production is down over 1 million barrels a day, enough to move the price we pay at the pump. Neither candidate was willing to point that out.