The old politics of oil has resurfaced to add a nervous flutter to Election 2000 and also to revive an enduring question of modern industrial life–what is the right price for oil? The media’s New Economy cheerleaders scolded Clinton/Gore for tampering with the answer, but those pundits are under an illusion that the market, not governments and international politics, determines the price of crude oil. Their rage at Clinton for unleashing a little extra crude from the government’s strategic reserve is an amusing non sequitur. For the past thirty years, the world price of oil has been “managed” by governments, albeit with haphazard results. The price was maintained by the OPEC cartel of oil-producing nations, with discreet consultations from the United States and other industrial powers. Before OPEC, the world price of oil had been managed since the thirties by the fabled Seven Sisters, global oil corporations that still have an influential voice in the conversations. Oil-price diplomacy, for obvious reasons, is mostly done in deep privacy.
Indeed, Riyadh and Washington are at this moment attempting once again to get the price right, that is, to steer crude oil back down to a mutually acceptable zone, centered on $25 a barrel. That’s what Saudi Arabia, the largest producer, says it wants–a target range between $22 and $28 a barrel–and what Bill Clinton has called “a reasonable range” acceptable to Washington. Oil at $25 a barrel would be a lot cheaper than the recent peak of $38, but also a lot higher than the $10 bottom that oil hit in 1998, when prices were severely depressed by collapsing demand triggered by the Asian financial crisis the year before. Splitting the difference is a better solution than continued crisis, especially for Europe, because stability helps sustain everyone’s economic growth.
So is $25 the right price? Maybe not. Because $25 is still cheap oil–too cheap to allow the producer nations to recapture their massive revenue losses and possibly too cheap to force US consumers and companies to undertake serious, self-interested industrial conversions away from petroleum. Since oil is traded worldwide in dollars, its real price declines automatically from US inflation. Thus, measured in constant dollars, $25 oil is really only about $13 in historical terms–right where it was in the mid-seventies. This level would be modestly above the average real price of the past fifteen years but still far below what OPEC initially gained after its two dramatic spikes in the seventies. Because of the interaction of currency values, Europe is taking a much more severe hit this time. The euro is down and the dollar is strong, so the real price of imported oil is much higher for European economies.
Texas oil guy George W. Bush is making the same retrograde noises Republicans always make–Drill for more oil! Open up the Alaskan wilderness! Drill offshore! Whatever! Bush’s nostalgic notion that the United States can drill its way out of its petroleum problem is out of touch by about twenty-five years. The world isn’t running out of oil–the undiscovered reserves are probably good for another century–but the United States is running out of its own oil. The proposition that we should pump and burn our remaining reserves first is completely backward, both as energy policy and for long-term national security. Al Gore, in his best moments, understands all this and has long championed a fundamental shift to alternative fuels, but he has lacked the courage to force the issue. The Clinton Administration provided gorgeous subsidies to the Big Three auto companies to develop electric cars and then allowed the industry to backslide by not increasing the government’s fuel-efficiency requirements. Maybe the price crisis will prompt Gore to reread Earth in the Balance.