Oil prices and speculator-haters: For months, this blog suggested that oil prices would moderate in the $85-a-barrel range and lower. So what happened? Why did the price close at $113.93 a barrel today, or 39 percent higher? Chinese demand is one unsurprising reason. The remarkable upheaval in the petroleum-vortex of the Middle East is another, inserting a premium into the oil price of at least $15-$20 a barrel, and generating serious concern of a drag on global economic recovery.
Some people are getting angry -- gasoline prices are going up along with oil. But what gets them really angry -- madder still than the $60 ringing up on the meter at the gas pump -- is the notion that speculators (spit, spit) may be largely behind the runup. The only thing that gets some people even angrier than that is the accusation that speculators (spit, spit) are largely behind the runup.
Phil Flynn, among the sharpest trading commentators around, is firmly in the latter group. He is spitting mad at the defamation to which energy traders are being subjected. Fatih Birol, chief economist for the International Energy Agency, doesn't look spitting mad, but he does think the speculator-hater crowd has it wrong -- speculators may be driving up prices, but only in response to supply and demand signals, Birol tells Dow Jones Newswires. Of course, President Barack Obama himself helped to raise the temperature a week ago or so by pointing out the role of speculation in the price rise.
But once you get past the demonizing and the defensive rhetoric, the argument that traders have played no or hardly any role in the oil price rise is absurd. As Reuters points out, the number of net longs -- traders betting on a rise in oil prices -- has surged in tandem with the turmoil in the Middle East. On the Nymex exchange in New York, the number of long bets is up by 85 percent since mid-February; in London, the number is more than double. No judgment there. These bets simply push up the price.
Politics and war among the gas-guzzlers Oil has always been a multi-use commodity. One of its perennial benefits has been as a political football. As political leaders in Shanghai learned when fuel prices were raised on truckers last week, almost anywhere there is oil around the world, it becomes a potent political foil. So it is now in the United States as the 2012 presidential race gets under way. President Obama has suggested that the oil industry forgo $4 billion in tax deductions permitted in the exploration process, and has attracted some unlikely support for the idea. Yet most of his opponents accuse him of economic malfeasance and worse.
So far, it's not clear where this one will come out. But in terms of pure politics, coinciding with ExxonMobil's report of a $10.7 billion quarterly profit, along with large returns for the rest of the oil industry, Obama seems to be in the driver's seat for now on the tax issue. Similarly (and counter-intuitively), he may also be less vulnerable than might seem the case on gasoline prices, which have crossed the symbolic $4-a-gallon mark in large parts of the country. Nate Silver trots out studies suggesting that, when it comes to presidential popularity, there is very little voter response to high gasoline prices in isolation.
Shale gas: the mountain moves Until now, U.S. shale gas drillers have been implacable -- against warnings that they are inviting federal regulation and spooking potential future European suppliers to boot, these fellows have kept their heads in the 1940s, and suggested that this too shall pass. The trouble is over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the method by which gas is dislodged from hard shale. People whose homes abut such operations worry about the quality of their air and drinking water, and are raising a ruckus about it. Basically, if the industry wants to keep fracking, it needs to be much more pro-active in explaining itself, and to apply serious peer pressure on bad actors to clean up their practices. Why? Because it's not the 1940s. It is much harder to tough out such complaints since the 1970s environmental movement forced a gleamier look on the industry. This is no small issue -- shale gas has utterly shaken up energy and economic assumptions, and undermined Russian influence in Europe. If handled well, this bonanza of shale can have a big, positive economic, environmental and geopolitical impact in the United States and stretching all the way to China.
As it happens, there are signs of cracks in the industry edifice. A handful of drillers has gotten behind a website called fracfocus.org, where they have begun to post data sheets on some 330 of the 14,800 fracking wells in the U.S., along with the chemicals used in the process. Such disclosure has been a minimum demand of fracking critics. What changed their minds? Perhaps the Environmental Protection Agency, which this week moved against drillers who use diesel fuel in fracking. Perhaps it's President Obama, whose administration is newly calling for "common sense" regulation of the industry. Perhaps it's the relentless negative press, including a serious accident this week in Bradford County, Pennsylvania.
Yet, hold the champagne. First, 330 is not many wells. In addition, Cabot Oil & Gas, a serial environmental violator that this time last year was banned from any drilling in Pennsylvania over water contamination, isn't part of fracfocus.org. And ExxonMobil, the largest natural gas driller in the U.S., which is one of the early joiners at fracfocus, among others seems still to have a tin ear. Speaking to reporters yesterday, Exxon vice president Ken Cohen denounced the Mounties for stepping on his lawn while ignoring the horse thieves that brought them there. "[P]olitical overreaction to a small number of isolated environmental issues could jeopardize this emerging industry and the benefits it provides," Cohen said. He said, "Government policies did not cause the shale gas revolution in this country, but they could stop it in its tracks." Perhaps Cohen should share similar sharp language with Cabot.
Memoirs of a middleman: The word on the street is that James Giffen, the New York lawyer who wheeled and dealed for three decades in Moscow and then Almaty, is looking for a ghost writer to help with a memoir. As is the case with most such works, the interest will lie in how candid Giffen chooses to be. Given his penchant in those days for womanizing and drinking, one would expect much in the way of bawdy story-telling of the closing years of Mikhail Gorbachev's rule and beyond, and that will be interesting. But will he illuminate the darker side of politics and business in the former Soviet Union, material that would be of genuine literary and historical merit? Here one has reason for doubt. In November, Giffen was exonerated of charges of foreign bribery regarding U.S. oil company payments that ended up in the coffers of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev. His successful defense was that he was serving as an asset of the Central Intelligence Agency, a tall tale that nonetheless got Judge William Pauley nearly to weep and give him a bear hug. Will Giffen back off of claims of single-handedly bringing down the Soviet Union and bringing democracy to Kazakhstan? Perhaps. But that would not be in the character of a middleman.
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Steve LeVine is the author of The Oil and the Glory and a longtime foreign correspondent.