Here in northern California gasoline is now retailing for $4.20 a gallon. Prices haven’t been this high since mid-2008. Forecasts for $5 per gallon gas in the U.S. this summer are now commonplace. What’s driving prices up?
Most analysts focus mostly on two factors: worries about Iran and increased demand from a perceived global economic recovery. However, as we will see, there are also often-overlooked systemic factors in the oil industry that almost guarantee us less-affordable oil.
Iran wants nuclear power and (probably) the capacity to build a nuclear weapon; the latter is unacceptable to Israel and the U.S. But there is more to the standoff than this. Iran is a strategic oil and gas exporting country that, for the past 30 years, has escaped integration into the U.S. system of client states; it also occasionally provides assistance to Israel’s enemies. Following the disastrous U.S. invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran has emerged as the principal power in the region, capable of further destabilizing either of its war-torn neighbors. And Tehran has led a move to ditch the U.S. dollar as the standard currency of exchange in the global oil market.
Western sanctions include oil export embargoes that will gradually tighten over the coming months. Tehran has turned the threat around by proactively cutting off supplies to France and the UK. If the situation spins out of control in any of several possible directions, oil prices could shoot to $200 a barrel. So worry alone is keeping prices up.
Of course, the downside of open hostilities could include much more than unbearable oil prices. Nearly the entire Middle East could be thrown into chaos for the foreseeable future. It’s even conceivable that Russia and/or China could be drawn into the conflict in some way.
Hungry Chinese Hordes in Buicks
Meanwhile oil prices are also tied to shifting assessments of the state of the global economy. On days when the financial news is good, oil prices nudge up; on days when the luster on the latest Greek bailout package fades, oil prices tumble. The ongoing Greek debt crisis promises to plunge the EU into recession this year; on the other hand, the Dow Jones average is flirting with 13,000.
If the world economy consisted only of the U.S. and the EU, oil prices would probably be trending substantially lower than they are. But China increasingly commands attention. There, oil consumption is still soaring (it grew 6 percent in 2010 and again in 2011), and the Chinese are better able to withstand high prices because they wring more economic utility from every precious drop. The situation must be puzzling for many Americans. With gasoline consumption in the U.S. at a five-year low and domestic oil production at a six-year high, it seems incomprehensible that prices would be staging a rally. Americans have to get used to the idea that the U.S. is no longer at the center of the universe.
Then there are oil supply disruptions in South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. And of course those pesky oil-futures speculators, who pile on to magnify trends on both the upside and the downside.
Yet these are all short-term factors; there are also slower-acting forces pushing up petroleum prices. And it is these that we really should be paying attention to, because they will be with us for years to come and are generally very poorly understood.
The Peak of Peak-Oil Denial
Costs of production are rising inexorably—and fairly rapidly—as a result of replacement of conventional crude with oil produced from horizontal drilling and hydro-fracturing, ultra deepwater drilling and tar sands. Only a decade ago, a world oil price of $20 per barrel evidently provided plenty of incentive for the industry to develop new supply sources, as total global production continued to increase year after year. Today, most new projects look uneconomic if oil prices are anything shy of $85. Ironically, pundits often depict this shift as a miraculous new development that promises oil aplenty till kingdom come.
During the past few months, op-eds and talking heads have announced the death of “the peak oil theory” even as actual world crude production rates remain stagnant and oil prices soar. The fallacy in this thinking arises from a confusion of reserves with production rates. With oil prices so high, staggering quantities of low-grade hydrocarbons become theoretically profitable to produce. It is assumed, therefore, that the scarcity problem has been solved. If we extract enough of these low-grade resources, that will bring oil prices down! But of course, if the oil price goes down then these unconventional sources become uneconomic once again and effectively cease to be countable as reserves.
The absurdity of the “new golden age of oil” line of thinking will take a while to reveal itself; how it will do so is fairly easy to define from trends in the “fracking” shale gas industry, where temporary abundance (due to high rates of drilling a few years ago when gas prices were high) has driven gas prices back down to the point where producers are losing money, cutting drilling rates and selling off leases. All that’s left to this sad story is the coming denouement, wherein shale gas producers go bankrupt, production rates fall and the nation finds itself back in the midst of a natural gas supply crisis that pundits claimed had been deferred for a century.
The oil problem can be summed up simply: Fossil fuel supply boosters know how to add, but they’ve forgotten how to subtract. Seeing new production coming on line from North Dakota, for example, they extrapolate this growth trend far into the future and forecast oil independence for the nation. But most U.S. oilfields are seeing declining rates of production, and individual wells in North Dakota have especially rapid decline rates (up to 90 percent in the first year). Do the subtraction properly, and it’s plain that net supplies will continue growing only if drilling rates climb exponentially. That, again, spells higher production costs and higher oil prices. If the economy cannot support higher prices, and hence high drilling rates, then net total rates of production will drop. The one future that is impossible to achieve in any realistic scenario—low prices and high production rates—is precisely what is being promised by politicians and oil industry PR hacks.
Oil and Politics: Together Again
What will happen later this year if gas prices do break the $5 per gallon psychological barrier?
First, the problem is likely to directly impact the U.S. far worse than most other nations. Countries that tax fuel at high rates (including most European nations) have in effect already adapted to higher prices and will therefore be somewhat cushioned from the impact. Meanwhile countries that export oil will actually benefit from expensive crude.
Some analysts have suggested that price run-ups of the past few years have forced the U.S. to adapt, and that America is now more resilient to oil price shocks than was formerly the case. Our new cars are more fuel efficient, and most industries (including the airlines) have by now factored higher oil prices into their business models. There is some truth to this, but the adaptation is only partial at best. When gas hits $5 a gallon, consumers will need to cut back somewhere.
They’re already in debt up to their eyeballs and facing stagnant or declining household incomes. Something has to give.
Let’s not forget (though we wish we could): it’s election season! Republicans are already hammering Obama over the prospect of $5 gas and promising that, if elected, they will drive prices down to half that level. Meanwhile, with the exception of Ron Paul, they’re demanding harsher dealings with Iran, and are thus exacerbating one of the primary factors driving prices up. Altogether, it’s a neat trick.
Obama will be doing everything he can to keep gasoline prices in check. But what are his options? He could open up the sale of drilling rights on more federal lands—yet while that might make the fossil fuel industry happy, it will have no immediate impact on oil markets.
The one thing he could do that would have some short-term effect is to sell oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) on the open market. The day of the announcement, oil prices would plummet. They might remain depressed $10 or more for a few weeks, but the impact would only be temporary. Meanwhile Obama’s Republican rivals would decry the use of the SPR for political purposes. Opening the SPR would in any case offer no solution to the deeper problems making fuel less affordable. And an emptying of the SPR prior to a potential showdown with Iran over the Strait of Hormuz would indeed be foolish.
In fact, the only thing likely to reduce prices substantially and for a long period of time is serious, prolonged global economic contraction. But this is unlikely to be a plank in any candidate’s platform.
Lots of smart people will be striving to manage these worsening problems. Obama will try to keep a lid on the Israel-Iran dispute until after the election. He’ll aim to keep gas prices down while appearing to give every possible perk to the oil and gas industry. He’ll also try to keep impacts to the economy minimal—or at least delay the release of statistics that reveal just how bad the situation really is.
At the same time, though, his political enemies will be highlighting economic damage and trying to exacerbate the geopolitical crisis.
Keeping this simmering pot from boiling over may just be more than mere mortals can do.
Maryland will become the first state in the nation Thursday to implement a ban on foam takeout containers.
- New Jersey Legislature Passes 'Most Comprehensive' Plastics Ban ... ›
- Canada to Announce Ban on Single-Use Plastics - EcoWatch ›
- The Complex and Frustrating Reality of Recycling Plastic - EcoWatch ›
- Dunkin' Says Bye to Foam Cups (But Bring Your Own Thermos ... ›
- Maine and Vermont Pass Plastic Bag Bans on the Same Day ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Ajit Niranjan
Leaders from across the world have promised to turn environmental degradation around and put nature on the path to recovery within a decade.
- Destruction of Nature Is Triggering Pandemics, Say Leaders of WWF ... ›
- The UN Wants to Protect 30% of the Planet by 2030 - EcoWatch ›
- New WWF Report Calls for Protecting Nature to Prevent Future ... ›
Just days after a new report detailed the "unequivocal and pervasive role" climate change plays in the increased frequency and intensity of wildfires, new fires burned 10,000 acres on Sunday as a "dome" of hot, dry air over Northern California created ideal fire conditions over the weekend.
- California's Iconic Redwoods Threatened by Wildfires - EcoWatch ›
- California Wildfires Destroy Condor Sanctuary, at Least 4 Birds Still ... ›
- 7 Devastating Photos of Wildfires in California, Oregon and ... ›
- David Attenborough Calls For Ban on Deep-Sea Mining - EcoWatch ›
- Sir David Attenborough Set to Present BBC Documentary on ... ›
- David Attenborough Gives Stark Warning in New BBC Climate ... ›
Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
- Overlooked Flood Risk Endangers Homeowners - EcoWatch ›
- Florida Coastal Flooding Maps: Residents Deny Predicted Risks to ... ›
- Flooding Risk for U.S. Homes: Millions More Are Vulnerable Than ... ›