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Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Geography, not geology, to blame for oil prices

Last updated January 17, 2008 11:50 a.m. PT

New Year’s Eve has been and gone, but for oilmen, the party continues. On Jan. 2, helped across the line by a New York trader eager for bragging rights, the first business day of the year, the price of their product topped $100 a barrel for the first time. Oil is now almost five times more expensive than it was at the beginning of 2002.

It would be natural to assume that ever increasing price reflects ever-greater scarcity. And so it does, in a sense. Booming bits of the world, such as China, India and the Middle East have seen demand for oil grow with their economies.

Meanwhile, Western oil firms, in particular, are struggling to produce any more of the stuff than they did two or three years ago. That has left little spare production capacity and, in America at least, dwindling stocks.

Every time a tempest brews in the Gulf of Mexico or dark clouds appear on the political horizon in the Middle East, jittery markets have pushed prices higher. Last week, it was a cold snap in America and turmoil in Nigeria that helped the price reach three figures.

No wonder, then, that the phrase “peak oil” has been gaining ground even faster than the oil price. With each extra dollar, the conviction grows that the planet has been wrung dry and will never be able to satisfy the thirst of a busy world.

Yet the fact that not enough oil is coming out of the ground does not mean not enough of it is there. There are many other explanations for the lackluster response to the glaring price signal. For one thing, oil producers have tied their own hands.

During the 1980s and 1990s, when the price was low and so were profits, they pared back hiring and investment to a minimum. Many ancillary firms that built rigs or collected seismic data shut up shop. Now oil firms want to increase their output again, they do not have the staff or equipment they need.

Worse, nowadays, new oil tends to be found in relatively inaccessible spots or in more unwieldy forms. That adds to the cost of extracting oil, because more engineers and more complex machinery are needed to exploit it — but the end of easy oil is a far remove from the jeremiads of peak-oilers.

The gooey tar sands of Canada contain almost as much oil as Saudi Arabia. Eventually, universities will churn out more geologists and shipyards more offshore platforms, though it will take a long time to make up for two decades of underinvestment.

The biggest impediment is political. Governments in almost all oil-rich countries, from Ecuador to Kazakhstan, are trying to win a greater share of the industry’s bumper profits. That is natural enough, but they often deter private investment or exclude it altogether. The world’s oil supply would increase markedly if Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell had freer access to Russia, Venezuela and Iran.

In short, the world is facing not peak oil, but a pinnacle of nationalism.

None of that will help consumers or governments. The economic toll of expensive oil is just as high whether geology or politics is to blame — and the best response is just the same. Policy should encourage energy efficiency and support research into alternative fuels.

Governments seeking to shield their citizens with subsidies or price caps should instead expose them to the full cost to foster frugality. All this will be hard and unpopular. But politicians might console themselves with the thought that even the most recalcitrant petro-regime is more malleable than the brute realities of geology.

c.2008 Economist Newspaper Ltd. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate. and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

1 Comment on “Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Geography, not geology, to blame for oil prices”

  1. #1 No Pun Intended
    on Apr 7th, 2008 at 14:45

    No Pun Intended…

    Evolution has neither of these. Mutations are not \”organizing\” mechanisms, but disorganizing (in accord with the second law). They are commonly harmful, sometimes neutral, but never beneficial (at least as far as observed mutations are concerned)…

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