You wouldn't know it from the running-on-empty rhetoric of the U.S. presidential campaign, but crude oil prices hit an all-time high this week of more than $48 a barrel. Some economists are warning about a full-blown energy crisis, with prices rising to $65 or more until they bring on a global recession that finally slows demand.
The oil market right now is a sort of inverse bubble, propelled by its own momentum of anxiety and bad news. Wherever analysts look for reliable sources of oil, they see trouble -- in Iraq, in Saudi Arabia, in Russia, in Venezuela. And on the demand side, they see the inexorable rise of the Chinese economy and its new hunger for oil imports. So traders bid up the price of crude.
It's a one-way market at the moment, with prices crashing through the previous barriers. "The $50 level is acting like a magnet," energy consultant Peter Beutel told the Associated Press on Wednesday, after prices for U.S. light crude topped $47 per barrel.
No market goes up forever. But Philip Verleger, a respected energy economist, warns that over the next several years, the price pressure will probably get worse. "Prices may rise to $50 per barrel, or $60 per barrel, or even $70 per barrel," he writes in a recent report to clients. "They will likely remain there until growth in petroleum demand slows down enough to match available refining, logistical and productive capacity."
Verleger says the situation reminds him of 1973, when James Akins, who later became U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, wrote an article in Foreign Affairs titled "The Oil Crisis: This Time the Wolf Is Here." Soon after the article appeared, oil prices spiked -- to double even what Akins had predicted. "I have that ghastly feeling that we are about to repeat that cycle," Verleger worries.
The energy economist bases his gloomy forecast on several factors. First, he notes that on the futures market, prices for delivery of oil two years from now have risen $13 a barrel since last May, almost as much as the $17 per barrel increase in spot market prices.
"Never before have we witnessed such a dramatic upward shift in the entire price curve," Verleger writes. The message is that traders don't see recent price increases as a short-term phenomenon.
Another cause for Verleger's pessimism is Iran. He argues that Tehran is on a collision course with the United States and Europe over its nuclear program. As the West pressures Iran to stop its uranium-enrichment efforts, Iran could respond by cutting in half its current oil exports of about 3 million barrels a day. In this skittish market, such a cutback could drive oil prices to $60 a barrel, Verleger argues.
So with a severe energy crisis just over the horizon, what do the U.S. presidential candidates have to say? Not much that's helpful. The Kerry and Bush campaigns both have energy policies, of course. In fact, they're actually quite similar -- calling for more investment in coal and other alternatives to oil. But there's no sense, in either camp, that the country is facing a severe threat to its economy.
Both candidates attack each other for once favoring new taxes on energy. The Bush Web site even has a gizmo that allows you to calculate, with spurious precision, how much the gasoline tax increase that Kerry advocated years ago would cost you -- depending on the make and model of your car, where you live, and how many miles you drive each week. The Kerry Web site, not to be outdone in the cheap-shot department, denounces a proposal Vice President Cheney made in 1986 to tax oil imports -- claiming that if enacted, it would by now have cost consumers $1.2 trillion.
What makes these taxophobic attacks especially outrageous is that many economists believe new taxes on oil are one of the few ways that the United States might regain control of its energy destiny -- and move from the crazy oil-anxiety bubble of today toward something more stable and secure.
The non-debate over energy illustrates what's depressing about this campaign. The country is in serious trouble -- with record-high oil prices and the threat of a new energy crisis just one example of our global problems. But rather than the serious debate the country needs, we're hearing platitudes. George Bush and John Kerry evidently would rather play it safe and avoid politically controversial proposals, which in today's world is downright dangerous.