Here’s a good laugh line if you find yourself in a policy meeting about how to reduce gasoline use: suggest increasing the gasoline tax. During my time in the White House, I attended several meetings on this topic, and inevitably someone (sometimes me) would offer that simple idea. Everyone would then chuckle at its political insanity, and the conversation would turn to Washington’s policy of choice, increasing fuel efficiency standards for autos and cars.
Those standards certainly can reduce future gasoline usage. But they are an incredibly inefficient way to do so. For some new evidence of just how inefficient, let’s turn the microphone over to the aptly-named Valerie Karplus, an MIT researcher, writing in the New York Times:
Politicians of both parties understandably fear that raising the gas tax would enrage voters. It certainly wouldn’t make lives easier for struggling families. But the gasoline tax is a tool of energy and transportation policy, not social policy, like the minimum wage.
Instead of penalizing gasoline use, however, the Obama administration chose a familiar and politically easier path: raising fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks. The White House said last year that the gas savings would be comparable to lowering the price of gasoline by $1 a gallon by 2025. But it will have no effect on the 230 million passenger vehicles now on the road.
Greater efficiency packs less of a psychological punch because consumers pay more only when they buy a new car. In contrast, motorists are reminded regularly of the price at the pump. But the new fuel-efficiency standards are far less efficient than raising gasoline prices.
In a paper published online this week in the journal Energy Economics, I and other scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimate that the new standards will cost the economy on the whole — for the same reduction in gas use — at least six times more than a federal gas tax of roughly 45 cents per dollar of gasoline. That is because a gas tax provides immediate, direct incentives for drivers to reduce gasoline use, while the efficiency standards must squeeze the reduction out of new vehicles only. The new standards also encourage more driving, not less. (Emphasis added.)
A gas tax wouldn’t be a win-win all around, of course. People would pay more in taxes immediately. So you might well want to pair the tax with other policies (e.g., offsetting tax reductions) to ameliorate that hit. (The same concern applies to carbon taxes.)
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
As regular readers may recall, I am intrigued when prices deviate from normal relationships (see, e.g., previous posts on oil vs. natural gas prices and the pricing of Citigroup securities).
Over the past couple of months, a new anomaly has emerged: crude oil quoted at Brent has become much more expensive than WTI, the usual price benchmark quoted in the United States.
Over at the Oil Drum, Gail the Actuary illustrates the price disparity:
And explains it:
We have all heard at least a partial explanation as to why West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and Brent prices are so far apart. We have been told that the Midwest is oversupplied because of all of the Canadian imports, and the crude oil cannot get down as far as the Gulf Coast, because while there is pipeline capacity to the Midwest, there isn’t adequate pipeline capacity to the Gulf Coast. I have done a little research and tried to add some more context and details. For example, the opening of two pipelines from Canada (one on April 1, 2010 and one on February 8, 2011) seems to be contributing to the problem, as is rising North Dakota oil production.
There are two pipelines (Seaway – 430,000 barrels a day capacity and Capline – 1.2 million barrels a day capacity) bringing oil up from the Gulf to the Midwest. It is really the conflict between the oil coming up from the Gulf and the oil from the North that is leading to excessive crude oil supply for Midwest refineries and the resulting lower price for WTI crude oil at Cushing. Demand for output from the refineries remains high though, so prices for refined products remains high, even as prices for crude oil are low. This mismatch provides an opportunity for refiners to make high profits.
Her whole post is well worth reading if you are into such things.