Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Corporate/shareholder value, energy market and global warming

Updated: Renewable Germany bailing out Nuclear France

I just read the following in an article by a Mr. Bill McKibben and thought it to be an interesting perspective on why climate change/global warming is being so vigorously denied.

If we spew 565 gigatons more carbon into the atmosphere, we’ll quite possibly go right past that reddest of red lines. But the oil companies, private and state-owned, have current reserves on the books equivalent to 2,795 gigatons — five times more than we can ever safely burn. It has to stay in the ground.
Put another way, in ecological terms it would be extremely prudent to write off $20 trillion worth of those reserves. In economic terms, of course, it would be a disaster, first and foremost for shareholders and executives of companies like ExxonMobil (and people in places like Venezuela).
If you run an oil company, this sort of write-off is the disastrous future staring you in the face as soon as climate change is taken as seriously as it should be, and that’s far scarier than drought and flood. It’s why you’ll do anything — including fund an endless campaigns of lies — to avoid coming to terms with its reality.
Never thought of the resistance to moving away from carbon fuels as an issue of having to write off company value in order to save the planet. As shown with the housing bubble, writing off inflated value (inflated for what ever reason) is a rather difficult thing to do. I mean, when you have so much down stream of that artificial value dependent on it (think currency based on oil), the engineering challenge is like playing Jenga only no one will be laughing if you fail and the tower falls.  Also, you have a timer running in this version of Jenga.

I believe Mr. McKibben refers to the issue as a bubble in that the current price of raw carbon fuel is based on the idea that fuel in general is becoming less available. But fuel or energy is not less available. It is only one source of fuel that is becoming less in quantity. The only means to keep this conflation of less carbon based energy means less energy fuel in total is to deny the application of science in the energy market place as it relates to a competitor product. It is artificial price manipulation via psych-ops.
In other words, the only way to keep the carbon energy market alive is to not have a free energy market. Part of assuring not having a free energy market is to deny the need for a free energy market, thus, deny climate change do to human extraction of carbon from the ground and it’s ever increasing rate of conversion to a gas of CO2. It is artificial price manipulation via psych-ops.
Let’s take the write off issue one step further. How does the value of a company such as Exxon/Mobil which is based on ever rising price do to ever declining product with ever increasing demand keep this model for valuing the company if the product becomes essentially limitless? Now we’re up against our entire paradigm as to how we understand free market value and thus construct value.
Carbon based energy is currently view as land. No new land is being made and demand is rising thus ever increasing value. The proper model for carbon fuel is that of a market where over time the product becomes obsolete. This I think is the fault in thinking that has created the aberrant paradigm which lead to the bubble Mr. McKibben sees. Our entire energy market, viewed in this way is a complete illusion as seen from the owners side of the energy equation and a complete delusion as seen from the market economist side of the energy equation, though I would say the economist delusion has lead the owners to create their illusion.
Just one more problem with running an economy based on the efficiency of money as oppose to the efficiency of people.


From Real Economics I read an article from Der Spiegel regarding France struggling with electricity shortages do to the cold spell. Seem France, not normally experiencing cold winters uses electricity for heating homes. This year they needed 7000 megawatts per hour more power. 100 gigawatts one evening was need, the equivalent of 80 nuclear power plants. Germany was sending them a net 3000 megawatts/hour because:
It is interesting, said the federal environment minister, that Germany, especially in these days with a very high demand, can even export power—thanks to photovoltaic and wind energy. “We had in the last days a capacity of up to 10,000 megawatts of solar power, which corresponds to the output of ten nuclear power plants, and up to 11,000 megawatts of wind power,” said Röttgen.
Read another take here at Lenz Blog.
This is significant, because back in May of 2011 all the rage was how France was bailing out Germany after Germany announced its nuclear generation shut down. As with Jonathan Larson at Real Economics, no one is saying this means we can scrap all other power generation tomorrow as this Spiegel article notes the lack of solar generated power in Germany during a spell this winter and the need to import electricity.
The January article (not pro solar at all) notes:
Until now, Merkel had consistently touted the environmental sector’s “opportunities for exports, development, technology and jobs.” But now even members of her own staff are calling it a massive money pit.

How quickly fortunes can change. All the more reason to view carbon based energy in the energy market as a product that can be made obsolescent.  You know, a true free market with competition which purpose is to serves the efficiency of people and not money. Maybe then even Germany would not be so reactionary when their plan stumbles.  Heck, it took the Wright Brothers over a 1000 flights, just to learn how to fly!  Over 200 wings and airfoils!  They did not concern themselves with the issue of scaling it up for use by a planet of 6 billion people.

Stick to your plan Germany because you have the correct intention.

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A boom in shale gas? Credit the feds.

A boom in shale gas? Credit the feds.

 By Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus (hat tip to Barry Ritholtz)

Since the high-profile bankruptcy of Solyndra, the solar company that received $535 million in federal loan guarantees, many have concluded that government efforts to promote energy technologies are doomed to fail. Critics cite the abandoned synthetic fuels program, attempts to capture carbon pollution from coal plants and next-generation nuclear reactors as further proof of this conclusion.
Many often point to the shale gas revolution as evidence that the private sector, in response to market forces, is better than government bureaucrats at picking technological winners. It’s a compelling story, one that pits inventive entrepreneurs against slow-moving technocrats and self-dealing politicians.
The problem is, it isn’t true.
While details vary, the story is basically the same for nuclear power, natural gas turbines, solar panels, and wind turbines — pretty much every significant energy technology since World War II. That’s because the private sector alone cannot sustain the kind of long-term investments necessary for big technological breakthroughs in the midst of volatile energy markets and short-term pressure to produce profits.
No doubt, government energy innovation investments could be made more efficiently and effectively. But it would be a mistake to imagine that we’d be better off without them.

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The Effect of Oil Prices on Oil Drilling in the U.S.

by Mike Kimel

The Effect of Oil Prices on Oil Drilling in the U.S.

Oil markets have changed dramatically in the past couple of decades or so. Except for a few years following the second Oil Embargo – prices got as high as $60 (in 2005 $) a barrel in 1981 – real prices have tended to be below $25 a barrel through about 1999. Conversely, 2003 prices have been higher than that – in some years quite a bit higher. Now, there are all sorts of explanations for this big change we’ve observed over the past few years, ranging from Peak Oil to the war in Iraq to the rise of the BRICs to market manipulation, but that’s the point of this post…

Instead, I want to look at the relationship between the price of oil and the number of oil rigs, and how that relationship has changed over the last couple of decades or so. Oil rigs, of course, are the machines that dig oil wells; once a well is completed and has begun production, the rigs are removed and either go into storage or move on to drilling another well. Data on the number of oil rigs in operation in the United States used in this post comes from Baker Hughes. Regular readers know I normally do not use data from private sources, but Baker Hughes data are as close to “official” as possible, as the figures you’ll find the Dep’t of Energy’s website on rigs originate with Baker Hughes. Rig count data comes out weekly and begins in mid-1987. I’ve taken annual averages beginning in 1988. Price data are annual averages from Table 5.18 of the 2010 Annual Energy Review put out by the Department of Energy. That data runs through 2009.

Now, a few details. Some time toward the end of the last millennium and the first few years of this one, there was a revolution in the drilling of oil (and natural gas). Two new technologies, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal and/or directional drilling, changed everything. Hydraulic fracturing is the fine art of pumping sand and water mixed with small amounts of some fairly toxic chemicals at high pressure to break apart some types of rock formations (usually shale) in which oil (or gas) is trapped. And the other thing available now are rigs that don’t just drill straight down, but instead can drill sideways once they reach the desired depth.

There is no fine line we can point to and say: this is the point when these two technologies became widespread. Instead, based in part on the numbers, I’m just going to say that until about 1998, those technologies were rarely used in the US, but after 2002 they were in widespread use. So… let me put up two graphs. The first one shows the relationship between the rig count and the price of oil from 1988 to 1998, and the second shows the same relationship between 2002 and 2009.

Figure 1

Figure 2.

(A few comments to the statistically oriented… yes, I know that a single equation regression is nothing more than a correlation, but this was for illustrative purposes. And before you mention autocorrelation, take a look at the graph again and think of exactly what would change if I did correct for it.)

So what does all this mean? A few comments:

1. The relationship between prices and rig count exists because as world prices rise, U.S. producers have an incentive to drill more.
2. In the first period, for every dollar increase in the price of a barrel of oil, on average 25 rigs were added in the U.S. In the second period, for every dollar increase in the price of a barrel of oil, on average only 3.5 rigs were added.
3. Part of the difference noted in 2. is just due to the fact that rigs are so much more efficient today than they were a decade and a half ago.
4. Another part of the difference noted in 2. is that there are only so many resources available to install new rigs in the U.S.
5. Yet another explanation for the difference in 2. may be price volatility; given price fluctuate so much these days, prices today aren’t as indicative of prices in six months or a year as they used to be.
6. Drilling for oil is a capital-intensive and risky operation. The relationship observed in comment 2. might be even greater were it not for the low interest rates prevalent in the second period.
7. The fit is much better (i.e., the relationship between price and rigs is much tighter, as there are fewer points far off the line) in the second period.
8. Do 2. and 7. indicate that perhaps oil drillers are becoming “more professional”?
9. Should this serve as a bit of an automatic stabilizer on price volatility? In other words, do the volatile oil prices reduce volatility in oil output, which in turn might reduce price volatility?
10. One other thought, only semi-related, and I’m not sure how it fits. In the oil market, you can get a lot of price volatility with even a small change in output. If world output falls by, say 1%, there are a lot of users without that many good substitutes (at present) willing to bid up the price on the marginal unit.

And one last thought…. does any of this say anything, one way or the other, about the notion of Peak Oil?

A few notes. First, full disclosure – I am not authorized to speak on its behalf, nor do I necessarily see the big picture, but I believe the company I work for would benefit from increased regulation of hydraullic fraccing. Second, the idea of looking for a relationship between prices and the means of production of a similar commodity came from Craig Truesdell. I’ve found Craig’s insight seems to provide useful intuition in a lot of markets.

Cross-posted at the Presimetrics blog.

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Japan May Have Reached Point 7

I give up. It was perfectly obvious what was happening at Fukushima on Saturday afternoon, when I posted bullet points at Skippy: there was going to be a major cleanup cost and the live reactors were not salvageable, but nothing fatal to many was loose in the atmosphere yet.

Which is why I followed up here on Sunday with “use saltwater as the best option.” Once you accept that you’re doing damage control, do it efficiently and don’t worry about the sunk cost.

But evacuation and problems with all three plants that were offline at the time of the earthquake moves to stage seven, which was summarized by Pink Floyd:

Though even that may be pessimistic; Al Jazzera English (via their Twitter feed) reports that the heroes of this entire episode—the unnamed workers who are trying to avert serious leakage into the environment—are back at work after having temporarily been evacuated to a bunker.

Medicins Sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders)


Global Giving

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Oil prices and consumer spending.

With the recent surge in oil prices I thought it would be useful to look at the potential impact with one set of data I watch. It is energy as a share of personal consumption expenditures or consumer spending. In the 1970s energy consumption rose from about 6% to 9% of spending, or about 50%. In the early 2000s energy rose from about 4% to 7% of consumer spending before it collapsed. As of December energy’s share of consumer spending was already back to 6% of spending, about the level it peaked at in the last cycle before the financial panic generated a drop in other consumer spending. If you look at energy consumption this way it appears that oil consumption was already at the point where futher oil price increases would rapidly impact consumer spending on other items.

One area where higher oil prices clearly impacts consumer spending is autos, as consumer spending on new and used autos and energy have a very strong negative correlation. If rising oil prices generate a drop in real income or standard of living one of the easiest way to compensate is to delay buying a new,or used car. What would have been new monthly auto payments can be used to sustain consumption of other items. In this chart you can clearly see that this happened in both the 1970s and the 2000s. You can also see that spending on energy and autos accounted for about 10% of consumer spending in the 1990s and 2000s.

But the chart also shows that auto consumption was only about 3.5% of consumer spending at the end of 2010 as compared to a 5% to 5.5% norm in the 1990s and 2000s economic expansions. So the consumer does not really have the option to cut back on auto consumption like they did in the previous examples of oil price spikes. These charts suggest that if oil prices remain high or expand well past $100 we are quite likely to see consumer spending suffer across the board. Note that this chart of spending is based on nominal dollars.

Also note that Brent crude is already about $120 while West Texas Intermediate — the US base price — has only increased to about $100. This apparently is due to excess supplies in the Midwest because of a new oil pipeline from Canada. Such a divergence can only last so long, so that if oil supplies are interrupted for very long you can expect West Texas Intermediate to close on the Brent price fairly rapidly.

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CGI, Day 4 – Clean Technology and Smart Energy: Deploying the Green Economy

Moderator is John Holdren, Science and Technology Advisor to President Barack Obama and Director, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Participants are:

Ms. Al Dossary is introduced as one of the few, if not the first, female business leader in Saudi Arabia. (See her comments later for a variant opinion,)

Mr. Holdren opens by speaking of the three levels of technology adoption:

  1. Barrier Busting: “overcoming obstacles to the use and diffusion of technologies” that are available today.
  2. Incentivizing: changing the economic or the regulatory landscape to make socially- and environmentally-attractive technologies more attractive.
  3. Inventing and Improving: R&D demonstration that makes technologies with improved characteristics and lower costs.

Mr. Hattem, whose duty is “to direct capital to people and places that are currently outside of the economic mainstream,” means that his attention focuses on rural areas, and works with a data focus to ensure that the returns are realized.

Ms. Al Dossary, an English Literature major who is very fond of Disneyland, found herself moving the business into new directions, concentrating on “the carousel of progress,” and noting that she has often failed but ends up ahead.

Mr. van Oostrom moved primarily into green building technologies after meeting with Al Gore. Discovered that there was abundant information about how to build green buildings, and moved to that space.  Decided to make buildings “for half the money, in half the time, and completely carbon-neutral” after finding abundant support for the transition within his firm—middle and upper managers enthusiastic about being at the forefront.

Mr. Hattem notes that the emphasis on building development has to be on energy efficiency. (He points out that NYC is relatively energy efficient even now)  Concentrated on the transition in lending and investment practices in NYC and applied the information gained there to developing structures and investments in green technology.  Seeing even residential buildings being developed with expectation of cutting energy demand by 30% or more through technology such as using solar panels to provide hot water.

Ms. Al Dossary emphasizes that it is necessary to link green technology with people’s interests, not the glories of the technology. We are presenting it as reducing electricity and water bills and providing a better environment for your kids. Competition abides: the more competition in the marketplace, in the presentation of the products, improves results.

Mr. Holdren notes that Ms. Mumpuni has been working from the ground up, and her effort has often been more successful than the governments that have been pushing from the top.  Ms. Mumpuni takes a “community-based approach”; what has worked have been to utilize the local resources—especially water—with local people developing and maintaining (and therefore having a sense of ownership of) the microhydro technology.  One of the things she noted is that the microhydro technology leverages the existing environment—maintaining the local forests instead of cutting them down enabled leveraging the existing terrain without having to engage in destruction, creative or not—and therefore makes adaptation easier.  She has been expanding and adopting this practice into the rest of the Asia-Pacific area and Africa.

Ms. Mumpuni re-emphasizes that development and dissemination of Green Technology must be done on a community basis.  This is, she says, essential to the small (ca. 1,000 household) villages that are attempting to move to greener technologies.  She is later asked what effect those community developments have on the larger utility companies in Indonesia.  She noted that the initial reactions—once the communities became prominent enough—was that the large companies had government support to force the communities to buy power they did not need.

However, as a woman, she was able to outwait the system.  Over the next four years, she got the government to start buying power from the communities, and the result over time was that the government and the utility companies (which no longer needed to maintain so many long, “technologically inappropriate” power delivery lines) realized that the “creative destruction” (not her phrase) could be good for everyone. (AB readers note especially: the restriction in this case was first supported by the so-called “private enterprise.”)

Mr. Holdren notes that in many cases the pitch for alternative energy is “you will have to pay more, but the externalities are worth it.”  Conrad van Oostrom notes that “the real economics” (Mr. Holdren’s phrase) works well for new buildings, where you can (for instance) “bring forward” the energy savings over the next ten years. (Businesses understand Present Value.) We are seeing that many new cities in China and India are being built using green technology.

The difficult part is retrofitting buildings, where there have to be multiple negotiations with existing tenants. Even there, though, it is much less difficult to do that when you can give them “a real guarantee” that their future energy costs will be reduced by 30-50%.

Mr. Holdren then asks Gary Hattem to provide a macroeconomic perspective on what retrofitting and green technology development is and will be doing for the job market.  Mr. Hattem notes that they are doing detailed studies of how the ARRA dollars generally and are working to align policies to workforce training for where the jobs actually will be.

Mr. Holdren asks Ms. Al Dossary if she, as “a business leader and a woman,” is an inspiration to other women in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. Ms. Al Dossary notes that women in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East are “not really interested in [being on the] media that much. There are so many successful stories for women.…I’m just in front of the TV; that’s the difference.”

António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, asks about the “Small is beautiful, big is necessary” conceit, especially the last part. He notes that they had a very successful experience installing solar energy in a refugee camp, but did not see any expansion of solar into other areas; no one overcame the institutional and cultural issues.

Ms.Mumpuni notes that they need to create trust be able to address the needs of the community.  She always tells them in advance that there must be continual community participation, from the planning to the maintenance, or her organization cannot risk its reputation on working with them.  Effect is that the community has customization and ownership, which goes a long way to overcome those issues.

Remy Chevalier of the Environmental Library Fund asks about the lighting of green technology buildings. Mr. van Oostrom notes that, in Western Europe, the issues of heating and cooling have been solved entirely for purposes of a “green building.”  The issue is lighting.  There has been some progress from the use of smart glass technology.  One thing that has helped in their buildings is to automatically have the lights go off at 6:30pm in the commercial buildings, while allowing people to press a button to relight the area. (I’ve worked in buildings that were set up that way in the U.S. as well.)  This simple move cut electricity costs by about 20%.  Mr. Hattem notes in that context that 1.6 billion people in the world do not have access to electricity, and that solar has become “an access point” for both the technology and distribution.

Ms. Mumpuni is asked about costs.  She notes that production via microhydro costs depend on geographic situation: from about $800 per Kw installed to as $4,000 per Kw installed.  But again there have been breakthroughs that are reducing that cost steadily: now producing a “community hydro” that produces ca. 500 Watts –enough energy to power to run five (5) to ten (10) houses—for about $1,500.

Ms. Al Dossary—asked to discuss possible obstacles to expansion into the “new clean energy” in Saudi Arabia—notes that, “Nothing is everlasting, not even water” and urges people to investigate all types of alternative energies, even as the Saudis are.

An audience member asks about the best retrofit idea.  Mr. Hattem notes that the best innovation is not going to come from the technology, but from the users and the culture.  “Technology is there now.”  Mr. van Oostrom says that it is “all about business models” now; the technology is there and ready; have to convince current residents to do things.

Ms. Mumpuni notes that in the developing world, the people need the technology: lights for children to read, to be able to cook (see the Cookstoves Initiative announced on Day 2; for a dissenting view of that initiative—though not the idea that people need energy to cook—see this guest blog at Bill Easterly’s Aid Watchers).  In that context, people use energy as they need it, not because it is accidentally left on.

Mr. Holdren notes that about one-third of what we need to do in the next twenty years is such “low-hanging fruit” that we should be able to realize it.  Putting a full price on carbon emissions would reach the next third.  It is the final third—new innovations,

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China and use of coal

Reader benamery 21 comments on US energy consumption from a previous post at Angry Bear on a better picture of what drives energy consumption in China. The NYT article used air conditioning and shopping malls as one metaphor for the good life that the Chinese are striving for, but he would advise caution for those wanting to Americanize our image of China at least in the short term (decades).

Residential air conditioning is only 2.8% of U.S. energy consumption (including electrical system losses at 31.5% system efficiency), and the average occupied square feet is a LOT bigger than a Chinese apartment. A/C isn’t the U.S. energy monster, that’s the private automobile. A/C uses less energy than residential space heating (5%) or water heating (3.0%) or appliance use (9.4%). It takes on importance from an energy perspective because it drives electricity PEAK demand (not total energy consumption) in large parts of the country.

A look at another lifting from comments by sparaxis at Oildrum from China Energy Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

It’s useful to look at how coal is used in China to assess what future demand may look like. Unlike the US, less than half of China’s coal is used for power generation, so while important, electricity demand is not the sole driver of coal demand.
China uses almost half as much coal for coking to drive its huge iron & steel industry, so that portion of demand will depend on the outlook for steel, half of which is now used in buildings and infrastructure.
Also unlike the US, China devotes a lot of coal use to district heating (“other transformation” in the graph) in the northern cold climate zones, and that portion is expected to grow only modestly as building reforms increase the efficiency of heat use in buildings.
For direct end-use of coal, that is almost all in industry, particularly the cement industry (residential use has fallen to about 80 million tonnes).
Given many saturation effects driving both construction and end-use of electricity by 2020, we don’t see coal continuing its dramatic rise of the last few years. 2010 probably marks the peak of cement production.
Under a depletion curve defined by China’s declared 189 billion tonnes of reserves from the 2003-2005 National Resource Survey, China is currently on what I call a “sharp peak” production profile that could reach 3.6 to 3.8 billion tonnes, but not for long.
The units in the following graph are in China’s standard measurement of “tonnes of coal equivalent” where 1 tce = 1.37 tonnes raw coal.

China Energy Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Other publications include:

The China Energy Primer

China’s Coal: Demand, Constraints and Externalities

Energy Use in China: Sectoral Trends and Future Outlook

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Opower…this is your profile

The Washington Post reports on an interesting development. If people aren’t able to “see” how they personally fit in to the ‘economy’ or ‘carbon footprint’ in a real way, they often ignore the ‘problem’ or keep it so abstract it does not touch them.

Three years ago, Dan Yates and Alex Laskey, the co-founders of Arlington-based Opower, came to a conclusion: People cared about their carbon footprint, for the most part, but needed a blueprint for reducing it. The longtime friends recognized an opportunity to create that path by providing people with an analysis of their electricity consumption.

Since then, Opower has blossomed into one of the rising stars of the energy industry, on track to post a $35 million profit this year, roughly eight times its revenue in 2008, according to the privately held company.

“We’re starting to see stronger adoption of Opower’s product by a lot of operators,” said Teresa Mastrangelo, an analyst with researcher Smart Grid Trends. “It’s a very simple way to start educating consumers on how they use energy.”

Opower essentially takes raw data, obtained from a utility company that contracts its services, and creates detailed reports on how customers’ consumption compares with their neighbors. The report also provides customized tips for each customer to address wasteful behavior. What’s more, the Opower team, made up of 105 employees, redesigns utility Web sites, offering e-mails and text alerts to update customers on usage…

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Wyden’s Proposal for taxing oil and gas speculators

Ron Wyden, Democratic Senator from Oregon who serves on the Senate Finance Committee and the Energy Committee, is generally considered a liberal, though with a mixed bag of positions that hardly qualify on all grounds. He is against the estate tax and favors lowering rates of capital gains taxes, neither of which makes sense, from my perspective, in an economy already tilted to favor capital (and hence those in the upper distributions) and in need of revenue. His positions on the environment have been fairly consistently progressive. Back in 2004, for example, he worked on legislation to “get tougher” on responses to oil spills and get kinder in expediting loans to people impacted by those spills. See this press release. He has supported the US addressing CO2 emissions even if the big economies of China and India don’t (S. Con. Res. 70, May 15, 2008).

So what happens when you put tax policy (where I’m not terribly impressed with many of his positions) together with environmental policy (where he seems to have a fairly decent record)?

Today, Wyden introduced a bill (S. 1588) that deals with both of these issues. It would end a tax break currently enjoyed by speculators who trade in oil and gas. They’d have to pay tax at the ordinary income rates, rather than getting the preferential capital gains rates (o% for the first two income brackets, then 15%). This would be achieved by treating the gains as short-term capital gains (or losses) even if they would be treated as long-term under other provisions. Gains in trading by tax-exempt investors–e.g., Harvard’s endowment and similar funds– would be taxed as unrelated business income.

What’s the rationale? “To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to provide the same tax treatment for both commercial and non-commercial investors in oil and natural gas and related commodities, and for other purposes.” The first section has a short title that perhaps reveals more–it is the “Stop Tax-breaks for Oil Profiteering Act” (STOP Act). The bill also calls for a study of commodities exchanges and the effect of tax policy on the demand and price of commodities, and particularly of oil and gas.

I’m no expert in this area, but this sounds at first impression like a good idea. Wyden’s point is that those who use such fuels in their businesses have to purchase those commodities and treat any profits on related trading as ordinary. But speculators pay lower capital gains rates on trading profits, which may well mean that their trading distorts the market and raises prices.

Of course, I’ve long argued for eliminating the capital gains preference altogether, either through repeal of the provision in the regular tax or adding it as an adjustment in the alternative minimum tax. While I’d rather there be a wholesale change–to remove all the characterization games that taxpayers play and to help move the tax system towards a fairer one that does not give such inordinate preference to owners of capital over workers, these commodities trades may be an appropriate target, especially given their likely impact on pricing in an era when we can expect increasing oil and gas scarcity.

Any thoughts?

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Cap and Trade and Non-Tradeable Emissions

Tom Bozzo

thinks the path of Chinese energy and climate policies is interesting but the prospect of international trade creating a game of carbon whack-a-mole is not a great argument for the ex ante unworkability of a U.S. cap-and-trade program. Take a look at the sectoral distribution of U.S. emissions, via the EIA:

The industrial sector accounts to 27 percent of U.S. emissions, and the especially hard-to-offshore residential and transportation sectors generate 54 percent of U.S. energy-related CO2. It also just so happens that the residential and transportation sectors are ripe with low-hanging fruit for emissions reduction — i.e., reduction opportunities that can be carried out at essentially no cost (*) via reductions funded with energy savings. The emissions reductions from picking the low-hanging fruit in the U.S. economy may be offset in whole or in part by Chinese emissions, but that need not be futile in the sense that the U.S. domestic reductions would cause China or similarly situated countries to emit more given their development paths.

What’s especially interesting about China is that their current resistance to emissions reductions has to be viewed in light of the sustainability of their current emissions path. China has relatively large coal reserves but also very high production rates, so rapid in fact that today’s Chinese infant can look forward to depletion of their domestic coal resource before s/he hits middle age. This points to a direction for resolution of the current tension between belching-smokestack China, imposing external costs on Minnesota fisherpeople, and futuristic greener China. Perhaps they will delay the reckoning by endeavoring to make coal exporters fantastically rich (at least until climate reckoning day), but it looks like Stein’s Law will bind and I might even get lucky and see it happen.

(*) That in turn points to something (for later discussion) that’s wrong with this Tax Foundation article on the implicit tax burden of cap-and-trade, which in fairness I should note gets an impressionistic picture of the distributional consequences more-or-less right.

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