Shock Waves.

The implications and possible effects of the drop in oil prices are complex and hard to predict.[1]

One effect of falling oil prices is to hammer oil producing countries at odds with the US (Russia, Venezuela, Iran). The fall in oil prices is putting far more pressure on Russia than are the international sanctions imposed over the unpleasantness in Ukraine. Both the Saudis and the Americans are quietly amused by the difficulties being encountered by the Iranians and the Russkies.

At least over the short-term (but likely over the longer-term) the fall in oil prices will reduce the revenues earned by the established oil producers. The effects could ripple through Middle Eastern politics. Saudi Arabia buys off domestic discontent with a high standard of living paid for by oil sales. Less revenue could translate into more discontent. When the United States scaled back aid to Egypt after the overthrow of the Morsi government, Saudi Arabia stepped in with generous assistance. Egypt plowed ahead with its suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood and other dissidents in open defiance of the United States. How long and how generously will Saudi Arabia be able to continue to support Egypt and other conservative regimes if the money stream starts to fall? Other Muslim states—like Algeria—are in something like the same boat in their dependence on oil revenues to fend-off unrest.

What does this suggest about climate politics in the United States? Will falling gasoline prices lead to more driving in bigger vehicles—with more emissions? Will the deflation of predictions about having passed “peak oil” reduce the pressure for the development of alternative energy sources?

What are the implications for the business-government relationship going forward? Eduardo Porter argues that government support for the development of the technology behind “fracking” endorses smart industrial policy. He suggests that this can offer a model for the development of new technologies to limit climate change. In particular, he endorses raising the gas tax during the period of low oil prices. The revenues “could be leveraged into a boon in tax revenues that the government could use to pick some of the winners that will help solve the [environmental] problems.”

The problem with “industrial policy” is that it’s just like other forms of politics. Established interest groups have a stronger position than do rising interest groups. The winners “picked” by the government are likely to be big campaign donors or the pet causes of political leaders. When government picks winners, we get farm subsidies and Solyndra. Porter’s own account of the development of fracking technology emphasizes the importance of research into new technologies paid for by the government, not that government picked winners. One thing that goes unmentioned by Porter is that government labs and subsidies were spread over a wide area. They didn’t focus on one technology or energy source. Continued investment in research certainly sounds like a good idea. So does an increase in the gas tax. Within that framework, however, would it be better to let the market pick the winners?

Why was this a surprise? Between 2008 and 2015 American domestic production of oil doubled. The European economy has been stagnant for a bunch of years. “Fracking” has been a loudly contested issue in American domestic politics for years. These are the key factors in the price decline. Yet markets, media, environmentalists, and politicians all seem equally surprised. Did no one see the rise in production/fall in prices coming? It’s a sort of Pearl Harbor in reverse.

[1] Eduardo Porter, “Behind Drop in Oil Prices, A Federal Role,” NYT, 21 January 2015.

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