CBO indicates that energy use -- for electricity, transportation, and heating and air conditioning -- is pervasive throughout the U.S. economy, representing 8.4 percent of U.S. gross domestic product in 2010. About 80 percent of the energy used by households and businesses comes from oil, natural gas, and coal; the rest comes from nuclear power and renewable sources, such as wind and the sun. Disruptions in the supply of commodities used to produce energy tend to raise energy prices, imposing an increased burden on households and businesses.
According to the report, the extensive network of pipelines, shipping, and other options for transporting oil around the world means that a single world price for oil prevails (after accounting for the quality of that oil and the cost of transporting it to the marketplace). Except for countries where the price of oil is regulated or subsidized in certain ways, disruptions related to oil production that occur anywhere in the world raise the price of oil for every consumer of oil, regardless of the amount of oil imported or exported by that consumer's country. In contrast, the high cost of moving natural gas, coal, nuclear power, and renewable energy limits their markets to geographically bounded regions, such as North America. Consequently, foreign disruptions have had little or no effect on the price of those fuels in the United States.
Although the global nature of the market for oil makes U.S. consumers vulnerable to price fluctuations caused by events elsewhere in the world, it also benefits those consumers by lowering the price of oil relative to what it would be in a regional market. That benefit would be greater, however, if the global market was less prone to disruptions or if oil producers and consumers were better able to adjust to such disruptions.
CBO indicates that when a disruption occurs, those countries with spare production capacity can determine whether to partially or fully offset the disruption. Few countries other than Saudi Arabia have much spare production capacity in the near term to offset such disruptions. In contrast, the U.S. markets for natural gas, coal, nuclear power, and renewable energy either are less prone to long-term disruptions or have significant spare production and storage capacity. For example, U.S. producers and consumers of natural gas maintain a significant reserve in storage (30 percent of annual consumption in 2010). Similarly, stocks of coal in 2010 represented 9 weeks of U.S. consumption. Much of the limited potential for disruptions in the supply of those fuels involves their transport across the United States (via pipeline, railcar, river barge, or truck), for which redundancy and spare transport capacity exist.
Transportation is almost exclusively dependent on oil supplied in a global market in which disruptions can cause large price changes. The United States has no alternatives that can be readily substituted in large quantities for oil in providing fuel for transportation. Moreover, consumers have less flexibility in the near term in how they use transportation, and changes in transportation use tend to be more expensive over the long term than changes in electricity use. In contrast, in the United States electricity can be produced from several sources of energy and the electricity system operates with significant spare capacity. That spare capacity means that when western coal is not available to electricity providers in the East, for example, they can shift generation to facilities that rely on coal from Illinois or Appalachia or increase generation from natural gas or renewable sources. Thus, when the price of one commodity used to generate electricity rises, another commodity can be substituted, keeping electricity prices relatively stable.
Addressing concerns about U.S. energy security requires considering policies related to the nation's supply of and demand for oil. Because of the global nature of the oil market, no policy could eliminate the costs borne by consumers as a result of disruptions, but some policies could reduce those costs. Policies targeting temporary disruptions in the supply of oil take two general forms:
- Reducing the exposure of consumers to high prices by, for example, making oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve available to the world oil market or encouraging the development of insurance markets. The beneficial effects of such policies could be neutralized if releases were not implemented in coordination with other oil-producing countries or the insurance did not transfer risk to those better able to bear it.
- Providing U.S. households and businesses with more choices in the near term for reducing the use of personal vehicles when oil prices rise.
Policies that enabled consumers to use their vehicles less during periods of high gasoline prices would be more likely to lower costs for households and businesses. Policies to address permanent changes in oil prices could take two broad approaches parallel to those above:
- Increasing domestic production of oil or oil substitutes or
- Reducing the consumption of oil by, for example, increasing fuel-efficiency standards or encouraging the development of alternative transportation options that use less, or no, oil.
Policies that promoted greater production of oil in the United States would probably not protect U.S. consumers from sudden worldwide increases in oil prices, even if increased production lowered the world price of oil on an ongoing basis. In fact, such lower prices would encourage greater use of oil, thus making consumers more vulnerable to increases in oil prices. Even if the United States increased production and became a net exporter of oil, U.S. consumers would still be exposed to gasoline prices that rose and fell in response to disruptions around the world.
In contrast, policies that reduced the use of oil and its products would create an incentive for consumers to use less oil or make decisions that reduced their exposure to higher oil prices in the future, such as purchasing more fuel-efficient vehicles or living closer to work. Such policies, however, would impose costs on vehicle users (in the case of fuel taxes or fuel-efficiency requirements), or taxpayers (in the case of subsidies for alternative fuels or for new vehicle technologies). But the resulting decisions would make consumers less vulnerable to increases in oil prices.
Commenting on the report, Senator Bingaman said, "This report. . . illustrates why some of the slogans used in our energy policy debates actually don't reflect how world energy markets work, and thus lead us away from the most useful steps we could take to improve our energy security. As many experts, and now the CBO, have repeatedly observed, every barrel of oil that we displace from the transportation sector, and that we therefore do not need to consume in the United States, makes our economy stronger, not to mention our personal pocketbooks, and less vulnerable to the volatility of the current marketplace.
"This is not to say that we shouldn't keep increasing domestic production, and that the Obama Administration should not move forward with its plans to bring even more supplies into the market. We lead the world in innovative exploration and production technology, and it is helpful to have more supplies on the world market. But the long-term solution to the challenge of high and volatile oil prices is to continue to reduce our dependence on oil, period. This is a strategic vision that has been articulated and embraced in the past on a bipartisan basis -- by President George W. Bush in his 2006 State of the Union Address and by a large bipartisan majority in Congress in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. That bipartisan path is still the best approach today."
Access an overview of the report on the Director's blog (click here). Access the complete report (click here). Access the Infographic (click here). Access the statement from Sen. Bingaman (click here). [#Energy, #Transport, #Land]
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