NORMAN ZANETTI: Oil Prices: Trouble Down the Road
Good to the last drop.
A few years ago this phrase was synonymous with Maxwell House coffee. I'm thinking of something else.
Today, many oil geologists and followers of energy developments claim the same might be said about oil and gasoline, and within our children's lifetime.
Antidepletionists, on the other hand, feel the end of oil is not that near. Regardless of what side of this fence you're on, one thing has become increasingly clear: The remaining drops of oil and oil derivatives are going to be very expensive and potentially more environmentally damaging to acquire.
It wasn't long ago that America had more, produced more, exported more, and converted more oil into downstream derivatives than any country.
Since then, we have become the largest importer of oil. We export none and consume 25 percent of the world's oil output to satisfy the needs of only 5 percent of the world's population.
The largest fraction from a refinery processing oil is gasoline. We have an insatiable appetite for gasoline. We consume 380 million gallons per day to power our automobiles, SUVs, and trucks. To meet that demand number, we have to import 42 million gallons, unthinkable just years ago.
This import number for gasoline is likely to grow given outages we have experienced at our outdated refineries. We have not built a new one since the mid-1970s. Oil and gas prices are constantly in flux, but the trend is for gasoline to set new highs and higher lows.
Consumers anguish over paying $3.19 a gallon up and down the highway. Even more disconcerting for the folks up North is a current No. 2 heating oil price on a recent week of $3.51 per gallon. If a family, say in Massachusetts, gases up two cars at $50 each and has the oil truck stop and deliver 300 gallons, the math is astonishing: $100 for the gas and $1,053 for heating oil.
The former might last a week, the latter 55 to 60 days at this time of year. I'm glad to live in Pinehurst, where golf courses and shopping are close by.
Being retired and not needing No. 2 heating oil is a blessing. Many of us probably ditto that.
Just the other day, I became aware of growing sentiments in Washington to produce a new grade of 87 octane containing 20 percent ethanol, giving us another option at the pump. Currently the offerings are 10 and 15 percent.
Ethanol does lessen our dependence on foreign oil, but the win-lose is significant. Ethanol is currently an expensive additive that raises the cost of gasoline. The more significant impact of more and higher percentages can be seen at the grocery store. Corn, wheat , and soybean prices are sky-high as more of the crops are finding their way into ethanol.
I think the major oil companies like this development for a selfish reason. A refinery costs about $1.25 billion, if you can get the permits. With lawmakers calling for increased ethanol usage in gasoline, this takes the pressure off oil companies to commit to building new grassroots, state-of-the-art refining capacities. No oil companies to my knowledge have announced plans to build one even with the staggering profits they have been generating quarter over quarter for years now.
If the United States Geological Association's estimates were correct, there were 2.7 trillion gallons of oil underground when Edwin Drake drilled his first well in Pennsylvania. For years now, the world's growing economies have been consuming oil at a rate of 80 million barrels a day. The United States alone consumes 20 million barrels a day. China, India and other emerging world economies are increasing consumption at alarming rates year after year. It goes with raising one's standard of living and enjoying what we have enjoyed for years.
The end of oil is somewhere down the road. For sure, cheap oil is gone. No major discoveries have been reported in years, and drilling for oil continues, but in very remote and pristine landscapes as well as below the ocean's floor. This is expensive oil to chase and is clouded by environmental sensitivities.
Alternatives to carbon-based fuels are technically possible given today's know-how, but the costs are not socially feasible. We need two fuels, one to power automobiles, the other to make electricity. The next Bill Gates bankbook will come from the person who patents a fuel to power spark-initiated engines with a noncarbon-based fuel that is safe and efficient.
Our lack of a coherent energy program we can all buy into has been and continues to be a disgrace. For decades, we have wondered how long oil would last and what toll CO2, carbon monoxide, and a host of other bad actors were doing to the environment. It will probably take long gas lines and gas rationing (a la 10 gallons per person) to supercharge the effort to move totally from carbon-based fuels into something more sustainable.
The truth of the matter is: Expect unbelievable high prices well in advance of the last drop of oil.
Norman Zanetti lives in Pinehurst.
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