D. Dowd Muska


Crude Fictions vs. Petroleum Facts

March 17, 2011

Just about everything written and said about petroleum’s latest price spike substantiates the punditocracy’s grotesque ignorance about energy. But it would be tough to top the cant offered earlier this month by Roland Martin, billed as “a dynamic and engaging journalist who offers a fresh perspective for the 21st century.”

In a CNN commentary that could have been penned by any left-wing, moderate, or neoconservative commentator, Martin railed against “our crack-like dependence on oil,” which leads “us down the road of agony and despair.” “[P]olitical leaders,” he fumed, “have no courage to own up to the special interests and gas lovin’ Americans and say, ‘Dammit, enough! We can’t move forward like this!’”

Let’s skip the “enlightened politicians should force citizens to do the right thing” paternalism and focus on the two-part myth most persistently spread by energy simpletons. The nation, they aver, is unapologetically addicted to oil that is primarily supplied by bloodthirsty dictators, pampered monarchs, and nutbar theocrats.

Contrary to the specious tale interminably recited by lazy pundits, petroleum is not guzzled, in ever-increasing amounts, year after year. On several occasions during the last couple of decades -- and always in response to price hikes -- individuals and businesses have cut back. They’ve conserved, boosted efficiency, and found cheaper (and frequently, less-polluting) substitutes.

Energy fusspots don’t know it, but two once-common applications of oil have been all but eliminated in the United States.

In the 1970s, January consumption of heating oil averaged 99 million barrels. By the 2000s, average January demand had plunged to 26 million barrels, a drop of 73 percent. (And no, American winters weren’t 73 percent colder in the ‘70s.) Many homeowners switched to natural gas and electricity for warmth. The relative loss of population in the Northeast, the region that burns the most heating oil, also contributed to the decline.

Electric utilities’ use of petroleum has imploded at a speedier clip. In 1978, 365 million megawatthours were generated by oil-based liquids such as gasoline, diesel, and kerosene. Three decades later, the fuels generated 87 percent fewer electrons.

Hasn’t our overall oil thirst intensified? Yes, but not in a way alarmists understand. The quarter-century between 1982 and 2007 is a sound timeframe to examine, since it was a period of tremendous economic growth. In real terms, Gross Domestic Product rose from $7 trillion to $13.2 trillion -- an impressive surge of 89 percent. Yet during the “go-go ‘80s,” the SUV-embracing ‘90s, and George W. Bush’s apocalyptic reign, America became more petroleum-efficient. Oil consumption grew by 35 percent -- less than half GDP growth. The story was nearly the same for gasoline use: It increased, but by half the rate of economic expansion.

As for “dangerous dependency” on baleful foreigners, the nation that provides the most crude to the United States is ... the United States. Where domestic drilling stops, Canada is the first to step in. Almost a quarter of imports are supplied by our friendly neighbor to the north. Mexico is also a significant source. In 2009, the U.S. bought more crude from African countries than it imported from the entire Persian Gulf. (Most of the Middle East’s black gold heads to Asia.)

It’s impossible to predict the future, but a strong case can be made that within our lifetimes, not only will America’s oil demand drop sharply, but it will be met by a shrinking share of imports. An aging population, greater telecommuting options, and the popularity of higher-MPG vehicles will curtail gasoline purchases. The election of energy realists to Congress and the White House will open areas now off-limits to exploration and extraction. Even without help from Washington, transformative advances in technology are making crude easier to access. According to the Associated Press, some experts believe that by 2015, fields in North Dakota, Colorado, Texas, and California “could yield as much as 2 million barrels of oil a day -- more than the entire Gulf of Mexico produces now.”

However unlikely, if the worst-case scenario spun by peddlers of conventional wisdom is true, and the era of cheap petroleum really is over, the transportation sector will transition to something else. Clean, abundant natural gas is the logical choice. (Electric cars are a possibility, if battery performance is dramatically boosted. Hydrogen makes some pols swoon, but it’s a pipe dream.)

There’s no denying that expensive gasoline is maddening. But killer prices at the pump are no reason to listen to fact-free, ain’t-it-awful lectures from people who can’t be bothered to analyze a single table of energy statistics.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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