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By James Hamilton on Mar 22, 2012 with no responses

Why Do Gasoline Prices Differ Across U.S. States?

Gasoline prices differ substantially across different parts of the United States. For example, the average price in Illinois is currently 70 cents/gallon higher than that in Wyoming, and California motorists pay 86 cents/gallon more than the folks in Wyoming. Why is that? Source: The biggest single factor is taxes. The tax on a gallon of gasoline in Illinois is 25 cents higher than in Wyoming, while the California tax is 35 cents higher. Source: American Petroleum Institute. But that still leaves 45 cents of the Illinois premium and 51 cents of the California premium unexplained. Political Calculations has created a map of average gasoline prices once you subtract out taxes. (His original map, like that from GasBuddy above, also… Continue»

By James Hamilton on Mar 20, 2012 with no responses

Will Oil Release from Strategic Petroleum Reserve Lower Prices?

The United States and Britain have apparently been discussing a joint release of strategic petroleum stockpiles.

The U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve was intended to be used in the event of a “severe energy supply interruption” whose legal definition is as follows:

A severe energy supply interruption shall be deemed to exist if the President determines that–

  1. an emergency situation exists and there is a significant reduction in supply which is of significant scope and duration;
  2. a severe increase in the price of petroleum products has resulted from such emergency situation; and
  3. such price increase is likely to cause a major adverse impact on the national economy.

Historical experience has shown that seemingly temporary supply disruptions can have very long-lasting consequences. Libyan oil production in November was still only about a third of what the country had been producing in January 2011 prior to last year’s disruptions. Iraqi production still has not returned to the average value seen in 1989 prior to the First Persian Gulf War. Iranian production has never returned to the average values achieved in 1977 prior to its revolution.


By James Hamilton on Mar 9, 2012 with 5 responses

Why Current High Oil Prices Won’t Derail the U.S. Economy

Here’s why I believe that the current high price of oil is not enough to derail the U.S. economic recovery.

Although the prices of oil and gasoline have risen significantly from their values in October, they are still not back to the levels we saw last spring or in the summer of 2008. There is a good deal of statistical evidence (for example, [1],[2]) that an oil price increase that does no more than reverse an earlier decline has a much more limited effect on the economy than if the price of oil surges to a new all-time high.


By James Hamilton on Mar 4, 2012 with 8 responses

Keystone Pipeline Moving Forward

In a development that should not have come as a surprise to Econbrowser readers, TransCanada announced on Monday that it would proceed with the portion of the controversial Keystone pipeline expansion that would connect Cushing, Oklahoma to the Gulf of Mexico. Because this part of the project does not cross the U.S.-Canadian border, it does not require approval from the U.S. State Department.


By James Hamilton on Feb 27, 2012 with 2 responses

Factors in the Recent Oil Price Increases

Crude oil prices surged last spring following disruptions in oil production from Libya, and had been drifting down during the summer and fall. But since the beginning of October, the price of West Texas Intermediate and Brent crude oil have both risen by over 30%, putting them back up near where they had been last spring. What’s changed in the world since the beginning of October?

Price of West Texas Intermediate, dollars per barrel, weekly Jan 7, 2011 to Feb 24, 2012. Data source: Webstract.


By James Hamilton on Feb 24, 2012 with 2 responses

Crude Oil and Gasoline Prices: Betting on Iranian Tensions

Crude oil prices this week reached their highest level since last April. What will that mean for U.S. consumers at the gas pump?

The first question to be clear on is which crude oil price we’re talking about. Two of the popular benchmarks are West Texas Intermediate, traded in Oklahoma, and North Sea Brent. Historically these two prices were quite close, and it didn’t matter which one you referenced. But due to a lack of adequate transportation infrastructure in the United States, the two prices have diverged significantly over the last year.

My rule of thumb has been that for every $1 increase in the price of a barrel of crude oil, U.S. consumers are likely to pay 2-1/2 more cents for a gallon of gasoline. The yellow line in the graph below plots the average U.S. retail price of regular gasoline in the U.S. over the last 4 years. The blue line is the gasoline price you’d predict if you applied my rule of thumb to the WTI price (assuming 80 cents/gallon for average tax and mark-up), while the fucshia line gives the prediction if you assume that the U.S. retail price is based on Brent. The three lines were quite close until Brent began to diverge from WTI at the beginning of last year. Since then, the U.S. retail price has tracked the world Brent price much more closely than it has WTI.


By James Hamilton on Feb 21, 2012 with 4 responses

Wealth Creation: Playing the Crude Oil Spreads

Here’s my suggestion for how to become rich: buy low and sell high.

It’s a strategy that works for individuals, and can work for the entire nation as well. If you can figure out a way to find resources whose value in their current use is not very great– in other words, if you buy low– and redeploy them somewhere else where their value is much greater– in other words, sell high– then you will not only add to your personal wealth, you will be creating new wealth for society as a whole. The process of allocating resources to their most efficient use is the heart of what drives economic growth. The fact that individuals have a strong personal incentive always to be looking for better ways to do that is the primary factor responsible for the standard of living that we enjoy today.

Let me give a concrete example of what I’m talking about. On Friday, you could buy a barrel of light, sweet crude oil produced in North Dakota for less than $81. On that same day, oil refiners in Port Arthur on the coast of Texas were paying around $110 to import a similar grade of oil produced in Nigeria. That’s $30 worth of incentive to you to try to figure out a way to transport oil from North Dakota to Port Arthur in order to replace a barrel of imported Nigerian oil with Williston sweet. As a nation, if we could divert some of the resources we are currently devoting to pay for oil imported from Nigeria, and use them instead to enable the Port Arthur refinery to get its oil from North Dakota, we will become richer.

Buy low, sell high.

So there’s a very concrete mission. How can you go about implementing it?


By James Hamilton on Feb 16, 2012 with 5 responses

Reducing Petroleum Consumption from Transportation

MIT Professor Christopher Knittel has a new paper on the potential for the United States to reduce petroleum consumption.

From the paper’s abstract:

The United States consumed more petroleum-based liquid fuel per capita than any other OECD-high-income country– 30 percent more than the second-highest country (Canada) and 40 percent more than the third-highest (Luxemburg). This paper examines the main channels through which reductions in U.S. oil consumption might take place: (a) increased fuel economy of existing vehicles, (b) increased use of non-petroleum-based low-carbon fuels, (c) alternatives to the internal combustion engine, and (d) reduced vehicles miles traveled. I then discuss how the policies for reducing petroleum consumption used in the US compare with the standard economics prescription for using a Pigouvian tax to deal with externalities. Taking into account that energy taxes are a political hot button in the United States, and also considering some evidence that consumers may not correctly value fuel economy, I offer some thoughts about the margins on which policy aimed at reducing petroleum consumption would have the largest impact on economic efficiency.

Knittel begins by noting that fuel taxes differ tremendously across OECD countries.

Motor fuel taxes (dollars per gallon) in different countries as of Jan 1, 2010. Source: Knittel (2012).

And these differences in taxes are associated with huge differences in per capita consumption. The graph below shows a pretty strong correlation: countries with lower fuel prices have higher fuel consumption. The slope of the fitted curve raises the possibility that, given time, long-run responses to higher gasoline prices could be substantially stronger than time-series correlations might suggest.