Government manipulation of energy markets is a cause of, not a solution to, high energy prices
From:The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy
High energy prices are a major concern of voters, so naturally the political party that controls Congress and the White House has offered a set of serious policy proposals to lower prices as quickly as possible.
Hey, we can dream, can’t we?
In reality, voters are being sold a container ship full of malarky about energy prices.
On June 15th, President Biden bizarrely blamed both Vladimir Putin and oil refiners for high gas prices and urged refiners to increase production. It was bizarre because the claims had been debunked just days before by the federal government’s own Energy Information Administration.
The EIA published an analysis on June 10th, five days before Biden’s letter to oil refiners, that dated the surge in oil and gas prices to 2020, not to the war in Ukraine that started four months ago. And the analysis estimated that refinery capacity would hover between 94% and 96% all summer.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has proposed doubling the taxes of any oil company that manages to enjoy profits of 10% or more.
That’s slightly lower than the average profit margin of all industrial sectors in the S&P 500, and just 1.7 percentage points higher than the average for the energy sector, Yahoo Finance columnist Rick Newman reported in April.
The tech, pharmaceutical, real estate and financial sectors all posted average profit margins last year of more than double the level Sen. Wyden has set for triggering oil company punishments.
In New Hampshire, Democratic politicians are blaming the Legislature and the governor for high energy prices, claiming that Republicans failed to pass a slate of renewable energy bills to reduce the state’s reliance on fossil fuels.
But they haven’t cited a single bill that would have lowered gas, oil or electricity prices this summer.
A story about supposed “legislative inaction” on clean energy published in the New Hampshire Bulletin listed eight bills that were supposed to help deliver us from our current reliance on fossil fuels. Five of the featured bills have passed, which is not something customarily associated with “inaction.”
Not one of the five would have had any effect on current energy prices. One actually delays the reduction of Eversource electricity rates for a year and keeps the ratepayer-subsidized Burgess Biomass plant open. The plant buys wood pulp at above-market rates and has already cost Eversource ratepayers an extra $150 million for electricity.
The three other cited bills were to buy electric buses and electric state vehicles, and to accept federal money for electric vehicle infrastructure. They would have had zero effect on prices this summer.
Voters are being asked to believe that our “reliance on fossil fuels” has caused the recent energy price increases, and therefore anything that begins to shift the energy mix away from fossil fuels will help lower prices.
That is nonsense. The price increases have all been caused by a shortage in the supply of fuels relative to demand.
Simply put, demand for energy surged in 2020 as the economy roared back to life earlier than expected, and supply has remained far short of demand ever since.
What about renewables? In New England, gas comprises 53% of the energy mix, and nuclear another 27%, according to regional grid operator ISO New England. Renewables are up to 12%.
State subsidies for wind and solar power would have made no noticeable dent in the region’s reliance on fossil fuels for two primary reasons.
- Even if we could build renewable generation capacity on a massive scale in just a few years, wind and solar still rely on wind and sunshine. They aren’t yet capable of replacing gas or nuclear as a reliable source of baseload power.
- Renewable energy is not inherently cheaper or more reliable than natural gas. It’s become more competitive, and soon it might become a significantly cheaper source of energy. And if that happens, it won’t need subsidies or government “investments,” because the market will respond on its own.
What could have made a difference? Fewer government interventions to direct investments to satisfy the interests of politicians rather than consumers.
When the government intervened to block pipelines, prohibit fracking, subsidize U.S. shipbuilders, divert resources to more costly “green” energy, and decommission functional, nuclear power plants, consumers suffered.
“Under wholesale markets, private companies have carried the risks of uneconomic investments, not utilities and their customers, ISO New England concluded. “Consumers have benefited from this least-cost resource mix created through competitive markets.”
A competitive market focuses on providing energy at the lowest cost. It will do this absent government interventions, just as markets for food, clothing, power tools and doughnuts do.
Government interventions that prevented investors from pursuing lower costs, and instead attempted to steer money to higher-cost alternatives, made energy markets less efficient, raised costs, and crimped supplies.
Repeal of the protectionist Jones Act alone would drop gas prices by 10 cents a gallon, according to a JP Morgan analysis.
To assert that the solution for high energy prices is more government interventions to further hamstring oil and gas companies would be like saying that the solution for the Boston Celtics’ scoring woes is to put more Golden State Warriors on the court.
The answer is not more government manipulation of the market. The answer is to lift restrictions that interfere with the market’s natural pursuit of a “least-cost resource mix.”