Dirt-Cheap Gas in 2009: Be Careful What You Wish For
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Only yesterday, it seems, we were bemoaning the high price of oil. Under the headline "Oil's Rapid Rise Stirs Talk of $200 a Barrel This Year," the July 7 issue of the Wall Street Journal warned that prices that high would put "extreme strains on large sectors of the US economy." Today, oil, at over $40 a barrel, costs less than one-third what it did in July, and some economists have predicted that it could fall as low as $25 a barrel in 2009.
Prices that low -- and their equivalents at the gas pump -- will no doubt be viewed as a godsend by many hard-hit American consumers, even if they ensure severe economic hardship in oil-producing countries like Nigeria, Russia, Iran, Kuwait and Venezuela that depend on energy exports for a large share of their national income. Here, however, is a simple but crucial reality to keep in mind: no matter how much it costs, whether it's rising or falling, oil has a profound impact on the world we inhabit -- and this will be no less true in 2009 than in 2008.
The main reason? In good times and bad, oil will continue to supply the largest share of the world's energy supply. For all the talk of alternatives, petroleum will remain the number-one source of energy for at least the next several decades. According to December 2008 projections from the US Department of Energy (DoE), petroleum products will still make up 38 percent of America's total energy supply in 2015; natural gas and coal only 23 percent each. Oil's overall share is expected to decline slightly as biofuels (and other alternatives) take on a larger percentage of the total, but even in 2030 -- the furthest the DoE is currently willing to project -- it will still remain the dominant fuel.
A similar pattern holds for the planet as a whole: although biofuels and other renewable sources of energy are expected to play a growing role in the global energy equation, don't expect oil to be anything but the world's leading source of fuel for decades to come.
Keep your eye on the politics of oil and you'll always know a lot about what's actually happening on this planet. Low prices, as at present, are bad for producers, and so will hurt a number of countries that the US government considers hostile, including Venezuela, Iran and even that natural-gas-and-oil giant Russia. All of them have, in recent years, used their soaring oil income to finance political endeavors considered inimical to US interests. However, dwindling prices could also shake the very foundations of oil allies like Mexico, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, which could experience internal unrest as oil revenues, and so state expenditures, decline.
No less important, diminished oil prices discourage investment in complex oil ventures like deep-offshore drilling, as well as investment in the development of alternatives to oil like advanced (non-food) biofuels. Perhaps most disastrously, in a cheap oil moment, investment in non-polluting, non-climate-altering alternatives like solar, wind and tidal energy is also likely to dwindle. In the longer term, what this means is that, once a global economic recovery begins, we can expect a fresh oil price shock as future energy options prove painfully limited.
Clearly, there is no escaping oil's influence. Yet it's hard to know just what forms this influence will take in the year. Nevertheless, here are three provisional observations on oil's fate -- and so ours -- in the year ahead.
1. The Price of Oil Will Remain Low Until It Begins to Rise Again: I know, I know: this sounds totally inane. It's just that there's no other way to put it. The price of oil has essentially dropped through the floor because, in the past four months, demand collapsed due to the onset of a staggering global recession. It is not likely to approach the record levels of spring and summer 2008 again until demand picks up and/or the global oil supply is curbed dramatically. At this point, unfortunately, no crystal ball can predict just when either of those events will occur.