What Role for Natural Gas in Transportation?

Will natural gas ever catch on as an important transportation fuel?

Yes, argues MIT Professor Christopher Knittel, in a new discussion paper for the Hamilton Project. Given the now-enormous spread between gasoline and natural gas prices, Knittel thinks that natural gas vehicles should become increasingly popular. Here, for example, are his calculations of the lifetime operating costs for various vehicles using gasoline or natural gas (click to enlarge, and be sure to read the caveat in the footnote): 

As you would expect, the biggest potential savings accrue to the most fuel-guzzling vehicles, heavy-duty trucks in particular.

Knittel does not believe, however, that the private market will exploit this potential as fast or extensively as it should. He thus proposes policies to accelerate refueling infrastructure build-out and to encourage natural gas vehicles. Here’s his abstract:

Technological advances in horizontal drilling deep underground have led to large-scale discoveries of natural gas reserves that are now economical to access. This, along with increases in oil prices, has fundamentally changed the relative price of oil and natural gas in the United States. As of December 2011, oil was trading at a 500 percent premium over natural gas. This ratio has a number of policy goals related to energy. Natural gas can replace oil in transportation through a number of channels. However, the field between natural gas as a transportation fuel and petroleum-based fuels is not level. Given this uneven playing field, left to its own devices, the market is unlikely to lead to an efficient mix of petroleum- and natural gas-based fuels. This paper presents a pair of policy proposals designed to increase the nation’s energy security, decrease the susceptibility of the U.S. economy to recessions caused by oil-price shocks, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. First, I propose improving the natural gas fueling infrastructure in homes, at local distribution companies, and along long-haul trucking routes. Second, I offer steps to promote the use of natural gas vehicles and fuels.

His “steps to promote the use of natural gas vehicles and fuels” are subsidies and regulations. Regular readers will recall that I believe environmental taxes would be a better way of addressing environmental concerns and, in particular, of promoting natural gas over gasoline. Of course, that view hasn’t gained much traction among policymakers. As least not yet.

Energy Security, the Infographic

The Congressional Budget Office is out with another fine infographic, this time on energy security.

The entire infographic is too big to post here, but here’s how Andrew Stocking and Maureen Costantino portray America’s energy sources and uses:

One of the most notable features is the absence of any link from natural gas to transportation (some natural gas is used in transportation, of course, but not enough to make the cut for this image). Given the ever-growing divergence between oil and natural gas prices, I wonder whether that will still be true a decade from now? Or will someone finally crack the natural gas to transportation fuel market in a big way?

The Natural Gas Glut is Reshaping Electricity Markets

Over at Bloomberg, Julie Johnsson and Mark Chediak document how low natural gas prices are reshaping electricity markets. Wind, nuclear, and coal all look expensive compared to natural gas generation:

 With abundant new supplies of gas making it the cheapest option for new power generation, the largest U.S. wind-energy producer, NextEra Energy Inc. (NEE), has shelved plans for new U.S. wind projects next year and Exelon Corp. (EXC) called off plans to expand two nuclear plants. Michigan utility CMS Energy Corp. (CMS) canceled a $2 billion coal plant after deciding it wasn’t financially viable in a time of “low natural-gas prices linked to expanded shale-gas supplies,” according to a company statement.

Mirroring the gas market, wholesale electricity prices have dropped more than 50 percent on average since 2008, and about 10 percent during the fourth quarter of 2011, according to a Jan. 11 research report by Aneesh Prabhu, a New York-based credit analyst with Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC. Prices in the west hub of PJM Interconnection LLC, the largest wholesale market in the U.S., declined to about $39 per megawatt hour by December 2011 from $87 in the first quarter of 2008.

Power producers’ profits are deflated by cheap gas because electricity pricing historically has been linked to the gas market. As profit margins shrink from falling prices, more generators are expected to postpone or abandon coal, nuclear and wind projects, decisions that may slow the shift to cleaner forms of energy and shape the industry for decades to come, Mark Pruitt, a Chicago-based independent industry consultant, said in a telephone interview.

The hard question, of course, is whether low natural gas prices will persist, particularly if everyone decides to rush into gas-fired generation:

“The way to make $4 gas $8 gas is for everyone to go out and build combined-cycle natural-gas plants,” Michael Morris, non-executive chairman of American Electric Power (AEP) Inc., said at an industry conference in November. “We need to be cautious about how we go about this.”

The whole article is worth a read if you follow these issues. (ht: Jack B.)

Oil and Natural Gas Prices Move Even Further Apart

In 2010, I wrote a series of posts documenting how oil and natural prices had decoupled from each other (see here and here). For many years, oil prices (as measured in $ per barrel) were typically 6 to 12 times natural gas prices (as measured in $ per MMBtu). That ratio blew out to around 20 in 2009 and again in 2010, a severe break with historical trends.

At the time, that seemed like an enormous disparity between the two prices. In retrospect, we hadn’t seem anything yet. As of yesterday, the ratio stood at more than 33:

A barrel of oil has roughly 6 times the energy content of a MMBtu of natural gas. If the fuels were perfect substitutes, oil prices would thus tend to be about 6 times natural gas prices. In practice, however, the ease of using oil for making gasoline means that oil is more valuable. So oil has usually traded higher.

But the current ratio is unprecedented. Each Btu of oil is now worth about five times as much as each Btu of natural gas. Thanks to a torrent of new supply, natural gas prices are down at $3.00 per MMBtu even as oil (as measured by the WTI price) has risen back above the $100 per barrel mark.

Perhaps natural gas vehicles will be the wave of the future?

Note: Energy price aficionados will note that I’ve used the WTI price in these calculations. That used to be straightforward and unobjectionable. Now, however, we have to worry about another pricing discrepancy: WTI is very cheap relative to similar grades of oil on the world market (for background, see this post). For example, Brent crude closed Monday around $112 per barrel, well above the $101 WTI price. Brent prices are relevant to many U.S. oil consumers. There’s a good argument, therefore, that my chart understates how much the price ratio has moved. 

How Do Consumers Spend Engine Efficiency Advances? On Bigger, Faster Cars

Auto companies have made great strides in improving engine efficiency in recent decades. But those improvements haven’t done much to improve the fuel economy of America’s passenger car fleet. Instead, consumers have “spent” most of those efficiency improvements on bigger, faster cars.

MIT economist Christopher Knittel has carefully quantified these tradeoffs in a recent paper in the American Economic Review (pdf; earlier ungated version here). As noted by Peter Dizikes of MIT’s News Office: 

[B]etween 1980 and 2006, the average gas mileage of vehicles sold in the United States increased by slightly more than 15 percent — a relatively modest improvement. But during that time, Knittel has found, the average curb weight of those vehicles increased 26 percent, while their horsepower rose 107 percent. All factors being equal, fuel economy actually increased by 60 percent between 1980 and 2006, as Knittel shows in a new research paper, “Automobiles on Steroids,” just published in the American Economic Review.

Thus if Americans today were driving cars of the same size and power that were typical in 1980, the country’s fleet of autos would have jumped from an average of about 23 miles per gallon (mpg) to roughly 37 mpg, well above the current average of around 27 mpg. Instead, Knittel says, “Most of that technological progress has gone into [compensating for] weight and horsepower.”

This is a fine example of a very common phenomenon: consumers often “spend” technological improvements in ways that partially offset the direct effect of the improvement. If you make engines more efficient, consumers purchase heavier cars. If you increase fuel economy, consumers drive more. If you give hikers cell phones, they go to riskier places. If you make low-fat cookies, people eat more. And on and on. People really do respond to incentives.

What Should We Do With Higher Gas Tax Revenues?

Most of the economics bloggers I know favor higher gasoline taxes. Not immediately, of course, given our economic weakness. But eventually because of environmental and national security concerns.

As noted yesterday, Tim Kane of the Kauffman Foundation does a quarterly survey of economics bloggers. This time around, Tim included a question from me about the federal gas tax. Specifically, what would economics bloggers do with the money from a higher gasoline tax? (While allowing for the possibility that some don’t want it to go up.)

Here are their responses:

(Note: The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon; state gas taxes average another 30 cents, according to the American Petroleum Institute.)

As Tim notes in the full survey, “bloggers seem to love the gas tax.” Almost 85% of respondents supported a higher gasoline tax of which fully half would use the money for infrastructure spending. The remainder would use the money for deficit reduction or to reduce other taxes.

The U.S. Economy is Weak, Uncertain, and Fragile

At least according to the latest Kauffman survey of economics bloggers by Tim Kane. Here’s the word cloud of responses when the bloggers (including me) were asked for up to five adjectives to describe the U.S. economy in Q4 2011:

Comparing this to the last survey in July, the good news is that “vulnerable” has gotten smaller. The bad news is that “recovering” has disappeared (at least I couldn’t find it):

Is Our Luck Running Out on Oil Supplies?

In an excellent new paper, Jim Hamilton asks whether the “phenomenal increase in global crude oil production over the last century and a half” reflects technological progress or good fortune in finding new reserves. The two aren’t completely distinct, of course. Better technology helps find more resources. But the heart of the question remains: have we been lucky or good?

Based on a careful reading of production patterns in the United States and around the world, Jim concludes that we’ve been both and worries that the luck part may be coming to an end:

My reading of the historical evidence is as follows. (1) For much of the history of the industry, oil has been priced essentially as if it were an inexhaustible resource. (2) Although technological progress and enhanced recovery techniques can temporarily boost production flows from mature fields, it is not reasonable to view these factors as the primary determinants of annual production rates from a given field. (3) The historical source of increasing global oil production is exploitation of new geographical areas, a process whose promise at the global level is obviously limited.

Most economists view the economic growth of the last century and a half as being fueled by ongoing technological progress. Without question, that progress has been most impressive. But there may also have been an important component of luck in terms of finding and exploiting a resource that was extremely valuable and useful but ultimately finite and exhaustible. It is not clear how easy it will be to adapt to the end of that era of good fortune.

These arguments should be familiar to anyone who’s followed the peak oil debate, but Jim brings a welcome rigor to the discussion.

He also includes some charts illustrating how various states and regions have passed their production peaks. Here, for example, are the United States, North Sea, and Mexico:

And he discusses how oil prices affect the economy. All in all, a great survey.

P.S. If you are interested in the details, Jim’s post over at Econbrowser sparked some thoughtful comments.

Taxes and Energy Policy

Last week I had the opportunity to testify before two Ways and Means subcommittees–Select Revenue Measures and Oversight–about the way our tax system is used as a tool of energy policy. Here are my opening remarks. You can find my full testimony here.

As you know, our tax system is desperately in need of reform. It’s needlessly complex, economically harmful, and often unfair. Because of a plethora of temporary tax cuts, it’s also increasingly unpredictable.

We can and should do better.

The most promising path to reform is to reexamine the many tax preferences in our code. For decades, lawmakers have used the tax system not only to raise revenues to pay for government activities, but also to pursue a broad range of social and economic policies. These policies touch many aspects of life, including health insurance, home ownership, retirement saving, and the topic of today’s hearing, energy production and use.

These preferences often support important policy goals, but they have a downside. They narrow the tax base, reduce revenues, distort economic activity, complicate the tax system, force tax rates to be higher than they otherwise would be, and are often unfair. Those concerns have prompted policymakers and analysts across the political spectrum—including, most notably, the Bowles-Simpson commission—to recommend that tax preferences be cut back. The resulting revenue could then be used to lower tax rates, reduce future deficits, or some combination of the two.

In considering such proposals, lawmakers should consider how tax reform, fiscal concerns, and energy policy interact.  Six factors are particularly important.

  • Our tax system needs a fundamental overhaul. Every tax provision, including those related to energy, deserves close scrutiny to determine whether its benefits exceed its costs. Such a review will reveal that many tax preferences should be reduced, redesigned, or eliminated.
  • The code includes numerous energy tax preferences. The Treasury Department, for example, recently identified 25 types of energy preferences worth about $16 billion in 2011. These include incentives for renewable energy sources, traditional fossil fuel sources, and energy efficiency. In addition, energy companies are also eligible for several tax preferences that are available more broadly, such as the domestic production credit.
  • Tax subsidies are an imperfect way of pursuing energy and environmental policy goals. Such subsidies do encourage greater use of targeted energy resources. But, as I discuss in greater detail in my written testimony, they do so in an economically wasteful manner. Subsidies require, for example, that the government play a substantial role in picking winners and losers among energy technologies. The associated revenue losses also require higher taxes or larger deficits.
  • A key political challenge for reform is that energy tax subsidies are often viewed as tax cuts. It makes more sense, however, to view them as spending through the tax code. Reducing such subsidies would make the government smaller even though tax revenues, as conventionally measured, would increase.
  • Tax subsidies are not created equal. Production incentives reward businesses for producing desired energy and are agnostic about what mix of capital, labor, and materials firms use to accomplish that. Investment incentives, in contrast, reward businesses merely for making qualifying investments and encourage firms to use relatively more capital than labor. For both reasons, production incentives tend to be more efficient than investment incentives.
  • Well-designed taxes can typically address the negative effects of energy use more effectively and at lower cost than can tax subsidies. I understand that higher gasoline taxes or a new carbon tax are not popular ideas in many circles, but please bear with me. As I explain at length in my written testimony, well-designed energy taxes are a much more pro-market way of addressing energy concerns than are tax subsidies. Taxes take full advantage of market forces and, in so doing, can accomplish policy goals at least cost and with minimal government intervention. Subsidies, in contrast, make much less use of market forces and inevitably require the government to pick winners and losers. Energy taxes also generate revenue that lawmakers can use to cut other taxes or to reduce deficits.

P.S. Not surprisingly, that last point wasn’t picked up by anyone else, at least during my panel (one of three at the hearing). New energy taxes would, of course, be problematic for the macroeconomy if enacted immediately. And we’d have to make some adjustment, either in the tax code or in benefit programs, to offset the impact on low-income families. In the long-run, however, I think that would be a much better way to address many energy concerns, including carbon emissions and oil dependence. But that’s not the way our system works. Instead, as noted, it’s much more popular to use tax preferences, whose benefits are visible and whose costs are obscure, to pursue energy and environmental goals. Other participants discussed the particular incentives, existing and proposed, in greater detail; their testimony is available here.

Congestion Pricing Saves Time and Money

The Highway Trust Fund will soon be broke. Gasoline tax revenues haven’t kept up with spending, and it’s likely that demands for new highway infrastructure will grow in the future.

Joseph Kile, head of the microeconomics studies division at the Congressional Budget Office, discussed various policy options to deal with this funding gap in his testimony to the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday. Most news coverage of Joe’s testimony emphasized his suggestion that taxes based on miles traveled, rather than gasoline consumption, might be a better way to finance America’s highways. After all, miles traveled is, along with weight, the primary driver of wear and tear on the roads. And it’s a decent proxy for the benefit that drivers get from having functioning roads.

That’s an interesting idea, but I’d like to highlight another important point that Joe made: the amount of infrastructure America should build depends very much on how we price it.

If a six-lane highway gets congested, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to build new lanes or lay out parallel roads.

We could charge congestion fees instead. That would discourage driving at peak times and thus speed traffic without new construction. That’s what London and Singapore famously do to limit traffic in their downtowns. And it’s something we should more here in the United States.

Joe reports estimates from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) that congestion pricing could decrease highway spending needs by 25 to 33 percent:

The federal government spent about $43 billion on highway investment in 2010. To maintain the same quality of highway performance would require an average of $57 billion in annual federal spending in coming years, according to the FHWA. That price tag drops to only $38 billion, however, if we make good use of congestion pricing. Congestion pricing would thus save federal taxpayers almost $20 billion per year; state and local governments would save even more, since they pay for more than half the costs of these projects.

Congestion pricing can make our roadways work better, save Americans precious time, and reduce federal, state, and local budget pressures. That a great combination in this time of growing infrastructure needs and tightening budgets.