Antitrust, Barack Obama, central planning, ESG Scores, FDR, Fossil fuels, Gas Prices, Green New Deal, Intermittancy, Joe Biden, Keystone Pipeline, Lawrence Summers, Oil Prices, Oil Profits, OPEC, Power Grid, Price Gouging, Profit Margins, Profiteering, Renewable energy, Strategic Petroleum Reserve, Ukraine Invasion, Vladimir Putin, West Texas Intermediate
Democrats claim profiteering by oil companies is responsible for the sustained rise in oil prices since Joe Biden’s inauguration (really, his election). That’s among the more laughable attempts at gaslighting in recent memory, right up there with blaming market concentration for the sustained increase in inflation since Biden’s inauguration. At a hearing this week, congressional Democrats, frightened by the prospect of a beat-down just ahead in the mid-term elections, couldn’t resist making “price-gouging” accusations against oil producers. These pols stumble over their own contradictory talking points, insisting on more oil production only when they aren’t hastily sabotaging oil and gas output. Their dishonestly is galling, but so is the foolishness of voters who blindly accept the economic illiteracy issuing from that side of the aisle.
Break It Then Blame It
Those who level “price gouging” charges at oil companies are often the same people seeking to eliminate fossil fuel consumption by making those energy choices unaffordable. The latter is a bad look this close to mid-term elections, so they follow the playbook I described recently in “Break the Market, Blame It, Then Break It Some More“. And this post is instructive: “House Dem: Big Oil is profiteering by, er … doing what we demanded”.
Not only have the Democrats’ policies caused oil prices to soar; for many years they’ve been undermining the stability of the power grid via forced conversion into intermittent renewable energy sources like wind and solar, all while preventing the expansion of safe and carbon-free nuclear power generation. It’s ironic that these would-be industrial planners seem so eager to botch the job, though failure is all too typical of central planning. Just ask the Germans about their own hapless efforts at energy planning.
As economist Lawrence Summers, former Treasury Secretary under Barack Obama, said recently:
“Look, the net effect of the things the administration talks about in terms of micro policies to reduce inflation, this gouging talk is frivolous, nonserious, and utterly ineffectual. A gas price holiday would, ultimately, push up prices by raising demand. … The student loan relief … is injecting resources into the economy at a hundred billion dollar a year annual rate when the economy needs to be cooled off, not heated up. … The administration could be much more constructive than it has been with respect to energy supply.”
The market functions to allocate scarce resources. When conditions of scarcity become more acute, the market mechanism responds by pricing available supplies to both curtail use and incentivize delivery of additional quantities. That involves the processing of vast amounts of information, and it is a balancing at which the market performs extremely well relative to bumbling politicians and central planners, whose actions are too often at the root of acute scarcities.
Of course, the Democrats have seized upon the inescapable fact that soaring oil prices cause profits to soar for anyone producing oil or holding stocks of oil. But oil company profits are notoriously volatile. Margins were negative for most of 2020, when demand weakened in the initial stages of the pandemic. And now, some companies are bracing for massive write-downs on abandoned drilling projects in Russia. The oil and gas business is certainly not known for high profit margins. Short-term profits, while they last, must be used to meet the physical or financial needs of the business.
The threats of antitrust action by the Biden Administration are an extension of the price-gouging narrative, even if the threat reflects an injudicious grasp of what it takes to prove collusion. It takes a fertile imagination to think western oil companies could successfully collude on pricing in a market dominated by the following players:
Fat chance. In any case, it’s a global market, and it’s impossible for western oil producers to dictate pricing. Even the OPEC cartel has been unable to dictate prices, not to mention keeping it’s members from violating production quotas. But if a successful conspiracy among oil companies to raise prices was possible, one would guess they’d have done it a lot sooner!
Nor is it possible for the oil majors to dictate prices at the pump, because retail prices are set independently. While the cost of crude oil is only about 54% of the cost of refined gas at retail, fluctuations in prices at the pump correlate strongly with crude oil prices. Here is a ten-year chart of daily price data, where the blue line is the price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil and the orange line is the average price of regular gas in the U.S.:
Here are the same two series for 2022 year-to-date:
Again, oil prices have been under upward pressure for over a year until a break in early March, following the steep run-up in the immediate wake of the Ukraine invasion. First there was Biden’s stultifying rhetoric, before and after the 2020 election, assisted by radical members of Congress. Then there were executive orders halting drilling on federal lands, killing the Keystone pipeline, efforts to shut down several other existing pipelines, and the imposition of regulatory penalties on drillers. In addition, unrest in certain parts of the Middle East curtailed production, compounded this year by the boycott on Russian oil (which, as a foreign policy matter, was far too late in coming).
However, existing facilities have been capable of squeezing out more oil and gas. Lo and behold, supply curves slope upward, even in the short-run! Despite all of Biden’s efforts to cripple domestic oil production, higher crude prices have brought forth some additional supplies. Biden’s raid on the Strategic Petroleum Reserve has also boosted supply for now, but its magnitude won’t help much, and it must be replaced for use during real U.S. national emergencies, which the war in Ukraine is not, as awful as it is.
That said, investing in new drilling capacity is not wise given the political climate created by Biden and the Democrats: they have been quite clear that they mean to crush the fossil fuel industry. For some time, the oil companies have been busy investing cash flows in “green” initiatives in an effort to bolster their ESG scores, a dubious exercise to say the least. Arguably, in this policy environment, the most responsible thing to do is to return some of the capital over which these firms are stewards to its rightful owners, many of whom are middle-class savers who hold oil stocks in their 401(k) funds. That approach is manifest in the recent stock buybacks and dividend payments oil companies have announced and defended before Congress.
A forced shutdown of fossil fuel energy was much ballyhooed by the Left as a part of Joe Biden’s agenda. Biden himself bought into the “Green New Deal”, imagining it might win him a vaunted place alongside FDR’s legacy in American history. The effort was unwise, but Biden is trying to hang onto the narrative and maintain his punitive measures against American oil companies. All the while, he begs OPEC producers to step up production, bending a knee to despots in countries such as Iran and Venezuela. Why, it’s as if their fossil fuels are somehow cleaner than those extracted in the U.S! The feeble Biden and congressional Democrats are proving just how mendacious they are. They can rightfully blame Vladimir Putin for the recent escalation in oil prices, but they bear much responsibility themselves for the burden of high gas prices, energy bills, and the unnecessary, ongoing scarcity victimizing the American public.