A couple weeks ago, I discussed the remarkable divergence between the prices of oil and natural gas. At the time, the spot price of West Texas Intermediate was above $73 per barrel, while the spot price of natural gas at the Henry Hub was about $3 per MMBtu. The ratio of the two prices was at record levels, with the oil price 24.5 times the natural gas price.
Oil prices have declined since then, closing at $68.24 per barrel yesterday. But natural gas prices have also declined, closing at $2.82. As a result, the price ratio remains above 24, much higher than the 6 to 12 that’s been normal in recent decades.
To provide some more insight into what’s going on, I made a new graph to show the path of oil and natural gas prices since the start of 2001:
The chart (squiggle, if you prefer) tracks the path of monthly average oil prices along the horizontal axis and monthly average natural gas prices along the vertical, plus yesterday’s closing data. Several features of the graph leap out:
Yesterday marked a new record in the divergence between oil and natural gas prices.
As noted in a small item in the Wall Street Journal, the ratio of oil prices ($ per barrel) to natural gas prices ($ per million BTU) hit a record 24.5 at yesterday’s close. As you can see from the following chart, that’s far out of line with historical norms:
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 tend to to be about 6 times natural gas prices. In practice, however, the ease of using oil for making gasoline makes oil more valuable. As a result, oil has usually traded between 6 and 12 times the price of natural gas.
That’s changed in recent months. Natural gas prices have fallen to $3.00 per MMBtu, weighed down by new supply and weak demand. Oil prices, however, have stubbornly increased to more than $70 per barrel. That’s down sharply from the $100+ prices of last year, but up sharply from the $40 – $50 range earlier this year.
On Friday, the House of Representatives passed its climate change bill by a slim margin. The bill’s key feature is a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases. That system would set national emission limits and would require affected emitters to own permits (called allowances) to cover their emissions.
There are many good things the government could do with that kind of money. Perhaps reduce out-of-control deficits? Or pay for expanding health coverage? Or maybe, as many economists have suggested, reduce payroll taxes and corporate income taxes to offset the macroeconomic costs of limiting greenhouse gases?
Choosing among those options would be a worthy policy debate. Except for one thing: the House bill would give away most of the allowances for free. And it spends virtually all the revenue that comes from allowance auctions.
As a result, the budget hawks, health expanders, and pro-growth forces have only crumbs to bargain over. From a budgeteer’s perspective, the House bill is a disaster.
The following table illustrates how much revenue the bill would raise and compares it to the alternative of auctioning all the allowances: