In recent days, oil prices have climbed above $100 per barrel. As chaos spreads through the Arab world, we could soon see much worse.
According to recent testimony given to Congress by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, the current soaring oil prices are no reason for concern. According to the stock market, which has dropped hundreds of points each time oil prices have edged up another dollar or two, the situation is a five-alarm emergency. Who is right?
The likely impact of a new oil-price rise is shown in the graph below, which compares oil prices (adjusted for inflation to 2010 dollars) to the U.S. unemployment rate from 1970 to the present. It can be seen that every oil-price increase for the past four decades, including those in 1973, 1979, 1991, 2001 and 2008, was followed shortly afterward by a sharp rise in American unemployment.
The distress to American workers caused by such events is manifest, but the economic damage goes far beyond the impact on the unemployed. A sustained oil price of $100 per barrel will add $520 billion to the U.S. balance-of-trade deficit. Furthermore, there is a direct and well-established relationship between unemployment rates and the rates of mortgage defaults. Thus, the $130-per-barrel oil shock of 2008 didn’t just throw 5 million Americans out of work, it made many of them default on their home payments and thus destroyed the value of the mortgage-backed securities held by America’s banks. This, in turn, threatened a general collapse of the financial system, with a bailout bill for $800 billion sent to the taxpayers as a result. But that is not all. The destruction of spending power of the unemployed and the draining of funds from everyone else to meet the direct and indirect costs of high oil prices reduce consumer demand for products of every type, thereby wrecking retail sales and the industries that depend upon them.
Indeed, the world today is already in deep recession. Yet as a result of the systematic constriction of oil production by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which is limiting its production rate to 1973 levels of 30 million barrels per day, petroleum prices stand at more than four times what they were in 2003. This has imposed a tax increase on our economy of $500 billion per year, equal in economic burden to a 20 percent increase in income taxes, except that instead of the cash going to Uncle Sam, it will go to Uncle Saud and his lesser brethren.
These governments, however, are said to be our “friends.” As current events in the Middle East should make clear, there is every chance that someday - perhaps soon - we could wake up and find that the world’s oil is under new management, even less concerned with our well-being than the gang in charge today.
This is a fundamental threat to the American economy. We need to take action to protect ourselves from it now, before it is too late. How can we do this?
From looking at the data in the graph, it is clear that “cap-and-trade” plans or alternative methods of carbon or fuel taxation are not the answer. Indeed, by increasing the cost of energy even beyond those imposed by OPEC, they will only make the economic situation worse.
The only way out of this mess is forcefully to expand production of liquid fuels from sources outside OPEC control, particularly our own. That means unleashing our own domestic oil supplies through expanded drilling and also opening our vehicle-fuel market in a serious way to alternative fuels, such as methanol, which can be made cheaply from coal, natural gas or biomass and used in flex-fuel cars.
It may be too late already to stop the crash that will follow the current oil price run-up, but we still have to get started without further delay. Otherwise, while the crash itself will bring down world fuel demand and thus oil prices for a while, they will just rise once more when the economy begins to recover and slam us right back down again. And again. And again.
The time for action is now.
Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Astronautics and author of “Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil” (Prometheus Books, 2007).