The price of gas at the pump has risen sharply since the beginning of the year and is expected to continue to rise through the summer. The demand for oil and refined products has fallen over the last year, there is a surplus of oil on the market and the United States is exporting more gasoline than it’s importing. In the absence of supply and demands, the main factor is speculation on the world market that has been driven by the latest threat of military action in the Middle East and other smaller factors like the growth of emerging countries such as China and India.
Since oil prices are the biggest component in the price of gasoline, pump prices are soaring. AAA said Tuesday that the nationwide average price for a gallon of gasoline stood at $3.57, compared with $3.38 a month ago and $3.17 a year ago. It takes about $6 more to fill up the tank than it did this time last year – and last year’s gasoline-price surge helped take the steam out of the economic recovery.
Defining what percentage of today’s high oil and gasoline prices is due to excessive speculation, driven by Iran fears, is something of a guessing game.
“I put the Iran security premium at about $8 to $10 (a barrel) at this point, which still puts crude at about $90 or $95,” said John Kilduff, a veteran energy analyst at AgainCapital in New York.
The fear premium is the froth above what prices would be absent fears of a supply disruption – somewhere in the $80 to $85 range for a barrel of crude oil. It means that even with the extra cost put on oil from Iran fears, prices are at least another $10 higher than what demand fundamentals would dictate.
Why? Financial speculators.
What should the price of oil be if left to conventional supply and demand market fundamentals? Canada’s the largest supplier of imported oil to the United States, which now actually produces more than half of the oil it consumes. Production and delivery costs for a barrel of oil from Canada are about $75 a barrel. The market-fundamentals cost for a barrel of oil is in that ballpark; above that, speculation sets the prices.
“It’s as simple as that,” said Gheit, who has testified before Congress and called for regulatory limits on speculation in commodities markets.
Historically, financial speculators accounted for about 30 percent of oil trading in commodity markets, while producers and end users made up about 70 percent. Today it’s almost the reverse.
President Obama barely mentioned this in his energy speech this week and his energy policy offered no solutions to controlling the speculators.
One of the possible solutions that has been mentioned is to reduce the amount of refined product that the US is exporting. There are arguments that both support and discredit this as a solution:
Most of the ongoing increases in gas prices can be traced to geopolitical concerns and rampant financial speculation that have run up the cost of crude oil. And yet, if U.S. refiners limited themselves to domestic sales, there would be a glut on the market, and diesel and gasoline prices would inevitably drop.
“The other countries are willing to pay more than we would,” said James Hamilton, an economics professor and blogger at the University of California, San Diego. “And that’s the price we pay, too, what they’re willing to pay.”
Hamilton said that’s how things work in a global market. “If you are a refiner and you’ve got gasoline to sell, you want to sell it where you can get the highest price,” he said. “If Mexico is willing to pay a higher price to Americans, you’re going to want to sell it to them instead of Americans.” [..]
“I do not support an outright ban of exports,” said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program for the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen. “And I don’t want to see the government regulating retail prices. But I don’t think that it is in our best interests to be exporting at the rate at which we are.”
Slocum suggests that exports of petroleum products “should go through a regulatory barrier to assure that they aren’t resulting in higher prices for Americans, or otherwise hurting the economy.”
That’s what happens now with U.S.-produced crude oil. Oil companies aren’t allowed to export crude without permission from the Department of Commerce, which, by law, checks to make sure “that the proposed export is consistent with the national interest”. [..]
Any attempt to limit exports would, of course, be met by ferocious resistance from the refiners. Their profit margins would drop, and refiners would inevitably warn that with less money to reinvest, there could be shortages in the future.
But the many refineries owned by large, vertically integrated oil companies that own the oil production facilities as well are hardly hurting for money. In fact, when oil prices go up, as they are now, their profits go up as well; it doesn’t cost them any more to get the oil out of the ground — somewhere around $30 a barrel — but they get to charge as much as the market will bear.
No politician, not even the President, wants to stop the flow and profits to these “oil-garchs” and the flow of cash to their campaign coffers. That said, another solution that can be done is to temper the war mongering in the Middle East. Instead of threats of military intervention with Iran which even our military and national security advisers agree would be disastrous, a more reasoned diplomatic approach could go a long way to curbing the speculators. When President Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu at the White house next month, he needs to stress the need to temper the saber rattling.