An Oil 'Crisis'?: Part II

Soaring oil prices have revived the old bogeyman that the world is running out of oil. Economics is a great field for nostalgia buffs because the same old fallacies keep coming back, like golden oldies in music.

Back in 1960, a best-selling book titled The Waste Makers by Vance Packard showed that the known reserves of petroleum in the United States were only enough to last another 13 years at the current rate of usage. Yet, 13 years later, the United States had larger known reserves of petroleum than in 1960.

This has been a worldwide phenomenon. At the end of the 20th century, the known reserves of petroleum in the world were more than ten times what they were in the middle of the 20th century — despite an ever-growing use of oil.

There is of course some finite amount of oil and of other natural resources. The big leap is in going from saying that there is a finite amount to saying that we are running out.

When John Stuart Mill was a young man, he worried that we were running out of music, since there were only 8 notes and therefore there was only a finite amount of music possible. At that point Brahms and Tchaikovsky had not yet been born nor jazz created.

No matter how many centuries’ supply of oil there is on the planet, the high cost of oil exploration ensures that only the most minute fraction of that oil will be known at any given time. Thus there have long been recurring false predictions that we were running out of petroleum, as well as other natural resources.

The high cost of extracting and processing oil ensures that not even half of the oil in a known pool of oil will be brought to the surface and sent off to the refineries.

A generation ago, only about a quarter of the oil in a pool was likely to be brought to the surface. That is because the cost of extracting and processing oil from a given pool tends to increase as you drain from deeper into that pool.

Even at $60 a barrel, most of the oil that is known to exist is too costly to extract. How much will be extracted depends on how much higher the price of oil goes — and how much new technology can recover more oil at lower costs.

What if the government did nothing about oil prices? Rising prices would lead people to reduce their use of oil and lead producers to drain some of the more costly oil out of the ground.

Many people in politics and in the media seem to be alarmed about the rising cost of gasoline and of the petroleum from which it is made. But they only seem to be. What they are really alarmed about are the prices — and prices and costs are very different things.

Prices are what pay for costs. The government can impose price controls on gasoline or petroleum tomorrow but that will not have the slightest effect on the cost of oil exploration or the cost of extracting and processing the oil that is found.

When the costs are no longer being fully covered by prices, production is likely to be cut back, whether it is the production of oil or anything else. This is not speculation. This is what has been happening for literally thousands of years, going back to price controls in ancient Rome and Babylon.

Yet price controls have always been popular politically, despite being counterproductive economically. After all, how many votes do economists have and how many voters know economics?

Some people love to believe that prices should be kept down to a "reasonable" level, something that everyone can "afford." Yet the notion of "reasonable" prices is itself unreasonable. The costs of producing oil don’t depend on what we can afford or consider "reasonable." Nor does the cost of anything else.

Someone can always invoke the image of an elderly person on a fixed pension being unable to buy enough fuel oil to keep warm in the winter. Taking care of such isolated situations would not make a dent in the massive government budget. But the real goal of such anecdotes is to justify imposing government controls on all of us.

Make no mistake about it, there are many people out there just itching to tell us what to do — and make us do it.  That is why the word "crisis" gets used so much, and not just about oil, in order to soften us up for their taking over our lives. That is a bigger problem than the so-called "oil crisis."

  • Read Part I