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By Robert Rapier on Sep 24, 2009 with no responses

Gas Taxes and Long Range Energy Planning

I consider the level of dependence of the U.S. on imported petroleum to be a very large financial risk endangering the country’s future. There are certainly other import-related risks as well, but here I want to talk about the financial risk.

I consider it similar to having a mortgage upon which you pay interest each month – but in which the interest rate can fluctuate wildly. If you typically pay 7% interest on your mortgage, but your rates quickly climb to 12%, a lot of people would find themselves in a deep financial hole. Come to think of it, a lot of people did when they found themselves in a similar situation. They gambled on the future and lost.

With respect to oil prices, we are also gambling on the future. We import a bit over 9 million barrels per day of crude oil (we also import gasoline, diesel, etc.) Each $10/bbl increase in the price of oil means that consumers pay $33 billion more each year for oil. We are now paying $100 billion more each year for oil than we were just a few short years ago, and that money comes out of all of our pockets. This acts as a tax upon the U.S. economy, albeit one that doesn’t primarily benefit U.S. citizens.

The drain on the U.S. economy is one thing, but the risk is quite another. Why do we tolerate that sort of price risk? In my opinion, it is because tolerating the status quo is viewed by politicians as the cheapest, most politically safe option. And even if they are concerned about the risks, when economists say that oil might be going back down to $30, politicians are paralyzed from taking action. The uncertainty is a killer.

A story I read this morning highlights that uncertainty, and points to some of the consequences:

Low Gas Prices Threaten Green Car Revolution

The single biggest factor determining the success or failure of high-tech fuel-efficient cars is not battery technology, legislation, tax incentives, new model introductions, or infrastructure. It’s gas prices. The price at the pumps is the elephant in the room when it comes to green cars.

I would imagine that there is general agreement on that. When gas prices raced ahead, the Toyota Prius began to outsell the Ford Explorer. When gas prices fell back to $2/gal, SUV sales surged and Prius sales plunged.

The fundamental problem is that many people don’t make long-range plans with energy prices in mind. When gasoline goes to $2/gal, some expect it to stay there and so that SUV purchase doesn’t look bad – until gasoline is back to $4/gal. And the inability to plan is compounded by analysts who give mixed messages on which way oil prices are going:

Japanese broker Ryoma Furumi said oil prices will stay rangebound at $70-$75 a barrel; analysts at Mirae Asset Securities said prices are likely to consolidate between $65 and $75; and Jim Ritterbusch, president of Ritterbusch & Associates, said crude could be pushed toward the $75 mark.

Verleger, the energy consulting firm, predicts a drop in oil this year—all the way down into the $30s. The firm bases this prediction on crude stockpiles in the US being 14 percent higher than a year ago, and gasoline supplies up by 2.2 percent. Also, OPEC is currently pumping 600,000 barrels a day more than the world needs.

Meanwhile, Christophe de Margerie, chief executive of French oil giant Total, this week said he sees a risk of oil rebounding to $100 a barrel unless there’s greater investment in exploration. He warned of a possible oil shortage between now and 2015 if immediate action is not taken to invest in exploration. “The reserves of oil are there but if you don’t invest they don’t come on the market,” de Margeries said.

Would we plan differently if we knew that oil prices were going to be $100/bbl? Of course we would. We have already seen consumers respond as oil prices went over $100/bbl. But while consumers were responding, a lot of damage was done to the U.S. economy. The airline industry and the auto industry took a beating, as did many personal budgets that suddenly had to cope with much higher weekly fuel outlays.

Enough gambling on oil prices! Let’s raise the price of petroleum via taxes so that people can make energy plans that incentivize them to become more fuel efficient. As I have argued before, you can direct that back at people in the form of a tax credit. The idea would be to trade energy taxes for income taxes.

The benefit would be that we would start moving toward a higher level of fuel efficiency without having to legislate CAFE mandates that end up being gamed. With increased fuel prices, people will demand more efficient vehicles. Automakers will know which cars they need to build. Renewable energy – particularly those varieties that aren’t heavily reliant on fossil fuels – would also see a boost. Not only would they be competing against higher priced fossil fuels, but project developers could have more assurance that oil prices aren’t going to fall to $30 and destroy their project economics.

The benefits would be substantial. Most importantly, our consumption would fall. I consider it very important to stretch our remaining fossil fuel endowment as far as we can, and we can do a better job of that if we manage it. We need to buy time, because renewables are not ready to fill the supply gap that will result if we burn through our remaining oil too quickly.

I don’t think there is any question our oil imports would fall as people started to change their transportation arrangements. Following the high prices of mid-2008, total petroleum imports over the following 12 months fell by 700,000 barrels/day over the previous 12 months (although it is hard to say how much of that was recession-induced).

I have long complained that government energy policies that vacillate every time a different political party comes into power have long been an impediment for companies trying to do long-range project planning, both for fossil fuel and renewable energy projects. Volatile prices have much the same impact. I have had my disagreements with Vinod Khosla in the past, but his call to put a floor underneath oil prices has merit (see Point 14 here).

Having a price floor would would allow companies – especially energy companies and auto makers – to do a better job of long range planning. I don’t fault automakers for getting caught with an oversupply of SUVs as oil prices skyrocketed. They were just making cars that people in a low-oil-price scenario had long demanded. With the certainty of higher prices, the auto companies needn’t gamble that SUV sales are going to come back strong. They would know that they need to shift to the more efficient vehicles that consumers will demand.

I have no problem with taking calculated risks, but I do not gamble. Living on the Gulf Coast of Texas without hurricane insurance is gambling, because the hurricane probability is too high. I don’t see that as much different than the risk we place on the economy by not taking more proactive steps to insulate the economy against price spikes. But we didn’t learn that lesson in 1973, nor in the 1974-75 recession that followed. I don’t expect we are much wiser today.