Monday, August 26, 2013

Is Domestic Oil Drilling The Right Security Policy for the US?

This is a topic near and dear to logisticians and the overall energy strategy for the United States which then translates into what supply chains can expect for energy policy.  You cannot pick up a magazine, newspaper or watch a news show without the discussion of "energy independence" and how wonderful that will be / is for the United States.  And it is precisely that popularity which causes me to seek out other opinions.

A person once said if two people always agree with each other then probably one is not thinking.  The hoard mentality of energy independence makes me think that there must be another opinion - another way to look at things.  Well, leave it to Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett's great partner, and some may say the brains behind Warren, to give me that other way of looking at things.

In looking at this idea of energy policy he brings us to a core question:  Is it in the United States' best interest to "drain" the US now or should we in fact follow a policy of "drain the rest of the world" first and save our precious resource for the future?  A different way of looking at this problem. In order to believe that you may want to drain the rest of the world first you probably believe:

  1. At some point, oil will become a scarce commodity.  This is not a popular view right now as we have moved from "peak oil" to an environment of oil abundance.  But, while we may argue about when, I think it is reasonable to believe that some day oil will be scarce.
  2. You have to believe that there will not be a replacement for oil when the scarce time comes. 
If you believe those two items then the right policy is actually quite clear: drain the rest of the world first. While we can afford it and before the world catches on to us we should drain the world, even if it means drilling oil and bringing it to the US just to store then wait and see.  Here are some comments from Charlie:
"Oil is absolutely certain to become incredibly short in supply and very high priced .. The imported oil is not your enemy, it's your friend. Every barrel that you use up that comes from somebody else is a barrel of your precious oil which you're going to need to feed your people and maintain your civilization. And what responsible people do with a Confucian ethos is suffer now to benefit themselves and their families and their countrymen later. The way to do that is to go very slow in producing domestic oil and not mind at all if we pay prices that look ruinous for foreign oil. It's going to get way worse later ...
The oil in the ground that you're not producing is a national treasure ... It's not at all clear that there's any substitute [for hydrocarbons]. When the hydrocarbons are gone, I don't think the chemists are going to be able to just mix up a vat and create more hydrocarbons. It's conceivable that they could, I suppose, but it's not the way to bet. We should spend no attention to these silly economists and these silly politicians that tell us to become energy independent.
Let me pose a question for you. It's 1930. Oil in the United States is in glut. We have cartels to get the price up to $0.50 a barrel. Everywhere we drill we find more oil in our own country; everywhere we drill in Arabia we find even more. 
What would the correct policy of the United States have been in that time? Well, the correct policy would have been to issue $150 billion of very long-term bonds and cart 150 billion barrels of Middle Eastern oil into the United States and throw it into our salt caverns and leave it there untouched until the current age. 
It's easy to see that in retrospect, but who do you see who ever points this out? Zero. We have a brain-block on this issue. We should behave now to do on purpose what we did on accident then."

This is truly a fascinating position which challenges the common thought of drill in the US first.  He made me think:  Why should we drill now?  Oil in the ground is money in the bank and given that the ultimate price will be a global price to the consumer (i.e, the economy and the consumer see no benefit of local drilling) and that oil drilled in the US will be refined and then probably exported to equalize the global price, the correct policy is probably what Munger suggests - drain the rest of the world.

The only argument against this policy would be that we somehow benefit from local drilling and by the time we are drained there will be some type of substitute so it does not matter.  To this argument I reply with the knowledge of Pascal's wager.

When Pascal was asked why he believed in God he basically said it was an exercise in probability.  Basically he said he believed in God because if it turns out God does not exist than he really has lost nothing by believing in God during his life.  However, if God does exist than it certainly was good he believed and for those who did not, they are looking at an eternity of flames.

So, let's apply this to Munger's ideas.  If he is wrong, we have not lost anything (assuming we did not have to sacrafice mightly to drill the rest of the world).  If he is right, we will have ensured the security of our children for hundreds of years after the rest of the world is drained.

Makes you think.

Ht: The Motley Fool 

Watch the entire talk here:  21st Century annual Conference - ROUNDTABLE III  Charlie Munger starts making his comments on energy policy at about 36 minutes in.

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