Ed writes the popular economics blog Ed Dolan’s Econ Blog and has just recently released a book: TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch) – A Libertarian Perspective on Environmental Policy, which you can find out more about here
Interview by. James Stafford of Oilprice.com
James Stafford: Access to cheap energy is vital to economic growth. What do you see happening with the economy over the coming years as the time of cheap oil comes to an end?
Ed Dolan: In my view it is a myth that cheap energy – “affordable energy” as many people like to say is vital to growth. The idea that there is a lockstep relationship between growth of GDP and use of energy is widespread, but the data simply does not bear it out. Instead, what they show is that the world’s best-performing economies have become dramatically more energy efficient over time.
The World Bank uses constant-dollar GDP per kg of oil equivalent as an energy efficiency metric. From 1980 to 2010, the high-income countries in the OECD have increased their average energy efficiency by 55 percent. The United States has done a little better than that, increasing its energy efficiency by 81 percent over that period. That’s pretty remarkable, considering that we haven’t really had a policy environment that is supportive of efficiency.
Think what we could do if we did.
Even after the efficiency gains in efficiency we have made, we still have a long way to go. The US economy is still 15 percent less energy efficient than the average for high-income OECD countries, giving it plenty of room to improve. Switzerland is almost twice as energy-efficient as the US, and the UK is 68 percent more efficient.
Some people say that the only reason the United States has been able to grow while using less energy is the deindustrialization of its economy, outsourcing heavy industry to China. However, compare the US with Germany. Germany is an export powerhouse and Europe’s best-performing economy, yet its energy efficiency has increased at almost the same rate over the last 30 years as the United States, an 80 percent gain in efficiency compared to 81 percent. Furthermore, despite being proportionately more industrialized than the US and a major exporter, Germany squeezes out 41 percent more GDP from each kg of oil equivalent.
In short, we don’t have to hypothesize about the possibility of someday breaking the lockstep relationship of growth and energy use—we and most of the rest of the advanced world are already doing it.
James Stafford: What effect can you see America’s Oil & Gas boom having on foreign policy?
Ed Dolan: On the whole, I see it as beneficial. Energy dependence has led us to buy a lot of oil from countries that are unstable and/or unfriendly to us. Anything we can do to reduce that dependence gives our foreign policy more room to maneuver. The beneficial effects reach beyond our actual imports and exports. The US gas revolution is having repercussions all the way to Russia, where Gazprom OAO (PINK:OGZPY) (FRA:GAZ) (MCX:GAZP) is seeing its market power undermined, and Russia, as a result, is losing some of the geopolitical leverage its pipeline network has given it.
James Stafford: From Siberia and Poland to China and Qatar – the shale revolution has politicians salivating at the thought of a cheap and abundant source of energy. But can the results seen in the U.S. be easily replicated in other parts of the world?
Ed Dolan: I think you’re going to have to ask someone with more engineering background for the technical details, but from what I read, the answer is that it won’t always be easy. It is my understanding that some countries where shale seemed just recently to have great promise have already encountered disappointments in practical exploratory work. Poland I think is an example. Furthermore, the environmentalist opposition to fracking seems even stronger in many European countries than in the United States.
Still, I am hoping that the shale revolution will pan out in at least some countries. Think how much difference it would make, say, to Ukraine’s foreign policy if they were able to break their dependence on Russian gas.
James Stafford: Gail Tverberg has written a recent article suggesting the world is suffering from high-priced fuel syndrome, which has the following symptoms:
• Slow economic growth, or contraction
• People in discretionary industries laid off from work
• High unemployment rates
• Debt defaults (or huge government intervention to prevent debt defaults)
• Governments in increasingly poor financial condition
• Declining home and business property values
• Rising food prices
• Lower tolerance for immigrants
• Huge difficulty in funding retirement programs, programs for disabled, and regular pension plans
• Rising international tensions related to energy supply
Do you think this is too convenient and an oversimplification of the problems facing world economies at the moment? What would you blame for the plethora of economic woes being experienced at the moment?
James Stafford: I don’t buy the argument at all. Yes, when countries are hit by unexpected upward shocks in fuel prices, we do see short-run results like slower growth and layoffs, but those are short-term problems. When the proper structural adjustments are made, countries with high fuel prices manage to achieve strong growth and full employment.
Where are fuel prices lowest? If you look up the data and rank countries by retail fuel prices, you find the low-price end of the rankings crowded with countries like Egypt, Cambodia, Iran, Pakistan—not exactly economies we would like to emulate.
We’ve got big economic problems, but a lot of them don’t have much to do with energy.
What about a healthcare system that delivers mediocre results at the world’s highest cost?
Health care isn’t all that much energy driven. What about our steady move down the international rankings in education—are you going to blame that on the high cost of heating classrooms? Hardly.
James Stafford: Oil prices have been near to the $100 a barrel mark for some time now, and don’t look likely to drop back to previous low levels. What effect could this increased price have on oil importing economies compared to oil exporting economies?
Ed Dolan: Clearly, any oil price increase has the short-term effect of transferring wealth from using countries to producing countries. However, the long-run effects are what matter.
In the long run, high prices just accelerate the trend for using countries to become more efficient and less dependent. Meanwhile, the producing countries often don’t manage their oil riches well. They fall victim to the “curse of riches.” The curse takes the form partly of a loss of competitiveness in their non-energy sectors (the so-called “Dutch disease”). Partly it takes the form of corruption of their political systems. Russia is a poster child for both aspects of the curse of riches.
James Stafford: Renewable energy is more expensive than fossil fuels, so how can people be persuaded to choose the less economical option of renewables over the likes of coal and natural gas?
Ed Dolan: There is only one right way to promote renewables, and that is to introduce full-cost pricing of all forms of energy. Full-cost pricing is a two-part program.
First, it means pricing that covers the full production costs