This 105 minute informal talk with a panel of about 10 members of the US Energy Security Council which includes many former heads of the military, US Senate, oil industry and governmental bodies most of which have “honorable” before their names (Ex CIA Boss James Woolsey, Senator and Professor Gary Hart and Alan Greenspan to name a few).
While this is not a new subject, this event attempted to frame the debate as there being a monopoly in one of the most profoundly important sectors in our economy and that monopoly is a great weakness which leave us all exposed if we do not do something about it. I am of course talking about oil being the only real source of energy for all the cars, trucks and airplanes currently operating in the world today. This council argues that the principle role of government is to create markets and have them work. A monopoly is an example of a market not working. In this regard they argue that they are not being anti-oil but rather pro choice or pro fuel choices.
The decades of inaction on developing a proper energy policy has meant that the US has developed one by default. That is: “We do have an energy policy. We rely on a single fuel. We buy it from a cartel controlled by people who don’t like us very much. And every five years we go to war to maintain that privilege”. The council members are deeply worried about the effects that an inevitable oil price shock will have on the US economy and the people within it as history has shown these price spikes help trigger recessions (I will assume they are also concerned about the rest of the world but as they are talking to an American audience we’ll let it slide).
Talk covers a range of issues, such as:
- How there are many hidden costs to oil – the War on Terror, 30-40% of the US military budget directly and indirectly securing oil, climate change, social tension when oil prices rise, etc.
- Another supply shock is on the cards. As most of the oil reserves are located in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region where there is great political instability, especially after the Arab Spring. How long will it be until the next Libya occurs? There have already been attacks on oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, when will there be a successful one?
- Rise of developing nations. China is securing first rights to purchasing oil around the world meaning when a supply shock comes they will be more insulated and the world market will be that much tighter.
- Alternative fuels. There were a few on the panel gunning for methanol though some of their arguments sounded a little too good to be true for me. While it theoretically makes a lot of sense the actual practical and economic reality is less clear.
Perhaps the most important point is that all cars built today should be flex fuel vehicles. It only costs $100 to add in a sensor chip that detects the fuel on board and makes small changes to the fuel injection and spark plug timing to enable the engine to burn whatever mixture of ethanol or petrol/gasoline is in the tank. $100 buys flexibility for the fleet of the future and may in the long run save us billions, potentially trillions of dollars. This has happened successfully in Brazil and should be an easy mandate to pass by governments in the rest of the world. Key word should.
The same goes for developing a sensible policy on energy.