Is the world economy suffering from 'high-priced fuel syndrome'?
The major issue for many countries is that oil is becoming too expensive for the economy to afford, Tverberg writes.
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Oil is the fuel that we recently have had a problem with easy-to-extract supply running low. We had a somewhat similar problem in the mid 1970s and early 1980s. At that point there was still plenty of cheap oil left in areas where we had not yet drilled (Alaska, North Sea and Mexico, for example), so the problem was temporary, lasting only until we could drill more oil.Skip to next paragraph
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This time, the problem seems to be permanent. The chief executives of oil companies Total and Shell have been quoted as saying, “The days of so-called ‘easy oil’ are over, making it harder to meet demand without complicated and expensive projects.”(Voss, 2007). Examples of such expensive-to-extract oil include deep-water oil and tight oil that must be “fracked”. The fact that the cheap oil is mostly gone is the major reason why oil prices are higher than they were five or ten years ago. If oil prices had not risen, it is likely that the amount of oil extracted each year would be declining.
There are alternative fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel, but they also tend to be expensive.
Natural gas and coal aren’t immediate substitutes for oil. For example, they won’t act as fuels in most of today’s cars, trucks and airplanes. While there are long-term possibilities for substitution, the high-priced fuel syndrome is today’s problem, not a future problem.
Rising Fuel Costs Cause the Economy to Contract
There are a number of ways rising fuel costs can cause the economy to contract. The problem is thatconsumers’ incomes don’t rise, just because oil prices rise. If consumers are required to pay more for a necessity, they will cut back on discretionary goods and services. A few examples:
Food prices. If oil prices rise, the price of food tends to rise as well, because oil is used in many ways in producing food: cultivation of fields, planting fields, chemical sprays (herbicides, pesticides), transporting soil amendments, harvesting fields, and transporting food to market.
Low-income customers tend to be disproportionately affected by rising food prices. They especially tend to cut back on discretionary spending, such as buying a car or going out to a restaurant, in order to be able to afford enough food. As a result, workers in discretionary industries are laid off.
Commuting cost. If oil cost rises, the price of auto travel rises. Some auto travel, particularly commuting, is a necessity. Consumers, particularly lower-income consumers, tend to cut back on discretionary spending, such as vacation trips, to afford essential trips.
Businesses. Businesses are affected in multiple ways by rising oil prices. First, businesses in discretionary industries find that their “unit-sales” are down, because customers are spending more on food and commuting, as a result, need to cut back elsewhere. Lower unit-sales are likely to lead to lay-offs.
In many instances, businesses also use oil directly in the products they sell. For example, airlines use jet fuel. If oil prices rise, they have they either face lower profits, or need to raise prices to recoup their higher costs. This type of price increase further stresses customers’ budgets.
Electricity. While the current US problem is oil prices, rising electricity prices would be expected to have a similar effect. Every business today uses electricity in various ways–electric lights, running computers, running elevators, operating tools of various sorts. If electricity costs rise because of higher natural gas prices or because of greater renewable surcharges, it will raise the cost of the product produced.