Jul 23, 2004
The price of gasoline shot up this year, and by spring, the average U.S. price of unleaded topped $2 per gallon for the first time. That's cheaper in inflation-adjusted terms than during the price peaks of the early 1980s, and starting in late June, prices also fell somewhat. But at $1.89 in mid-July, the average price was still up 40 cents, or 27% higher than a year ago.
At that level, assuming a car travels 15,000 miles a year, which is typical, and gets 21 miles per gallon, approximately the national average, its driver will spend $1,350 annually on gas, or $286 more than last year. Given the lack of mass transportation (since the oil companies and auto companies had most of it gutted a half century ago), many families need two or three cars to get around and could be spending $3,000 or $4,000 a year just on gas.
Moreover, the other household energy costs, home heating oil and natural gas, have been increasing at about the same rate, taking a much bigger bite out of household budgets.
With family household income stagnating and even declining, many have been forced to cut back other purchases, even other necessities. Even Wal-Mart expressed concern – a spokesperson noted that higher gas and other energy prices are taking $7 per week (or $364 per year) out of the wallet of the store's average customer.
What is behind this rapid price increase? When gasoline prices began to rise late last year, the first thing that the news media did was to trot out the usual villain: OPEC, pointing out that both in September 2003 and February 2004, OPEC had announced that it was cutting production quotas. The news media generally described these proposed production cuts as "oil shocks," recalling the energy crisis days of 1973-74 and 1979-80.
At the same time, the news media was filled with stories about how demand for oil was rapidly increasing, not only because of the so-called economic "recovery" in the industrialized countries, starting in the U.S., but the "accelerating industrial development in Asia." Economic growth in China and India, the two most populous countries, powered by more and more oil, was also supposed to be responsible for the price increases.
So, on top of OPEC, the news media presented a second villain to blame for the sudden increase in prices: China. It was all OPEC's fault – that is, when it wasn't China's fault.
But was there really any shortage of crude, or even a danger of a shortage? The answer is "no." The news media might have described OPEC's announced production cuts totaling 2.2 million barrels of oil per day as "a surprise" or a "shock." But they were neither. OPEC had been expected to do this for a long time. Whatever production cuts that OPEC was trying to put through were meant only to prevent a growing oil surplus from getting completely out of control and leading to a collapse in the oil market. OPEC's own members had not been respecting previous quotas and were producing, depending on the report, between 1.3 and 1.7 million barrels of oil per day over their quotas. Besides that, non-OPEC producers had added another one million barrels of oil production per day in 2003 and were expected to add more this year. Even the International Energy Agency reported that throughout the period following OPEC's announced production cuts, there were still large daily production surpluses in excess of one and two million barrels per day, with plenty of spare capacity besides, which could be brought on line quickly in a pinch.
Equally false was the other side of the equation, all the stories about skyrocketing global demand for crude oil. Global demand is not increasing at anything like a rapid pace. The annual rate of growth is averaging just over one percent. In the industrialized countries, gasoline use has been flat, due to greater energy efficiency, the increasing substitution of other energy sources, especially natural gas for oil, as well as long-term economic stagnation. As for the underdeveloped countries, energy use has grown at a much, much slower pace than the growth in population – due to the grinding poverty.
In other words, if supply and demand – the news media's beloved laws of the market – were actually working as we were told, growing supply and limited growth of demand would have meant that crude oil prices would be sinking and not rising.
At times, this has been more or less recognized by the business press, which has instead blamed speculation in the energy markets, especially speculation by giant unidentified hedge funds and other financial institutions, for the crude oil price increase."Oil has become the market of choice for speculators in recent months," said the Financial Times on May 26. One could only "speculate" over what these admittedly unknown, anonymous, mysterious speculators were betting on. But officials such as Alan Greenspan say that the continued conflicts and wars in the Middle East and further terrorist attacks on the oil supply chain were adding a "terrorist premium" onto the price of crude oil.
The question is: why would occasional terrorist attacks on pipelines have such a huge impact on global crude oil prices? Disruptions in production and shipping of crude oil are not exactly anything new in the history of the Middle East. For example, the eight year Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s involved two major oil producers, which before the war had together exported four or five million barrels of oil per day. During the war, their oil production was not only disrupted, but crippled, and their exports plunged for many years. But this had a negligible long-term impact on the crude oil market. Other exporters took up the slack and pretty soon the oil market was saturated, leading to a sharp decline in crude oil prices. In fact, for a period in the very worst days of the Iran-Iraq War, when oil facilities in both Iraq and Iran were on fire and being bombed regularly, world crude prices declined to record lows!
Compared to the all-out war fought between Iran and Iraq, the kinds of terrorist attacks that are happening now are mere pinpricks, and not about to cause any real shortage or even disruption of any kind, even though the price of oil on the speculative markets increases after these attacks. Of course, speculative markets, by their very nature, are irrational. "Irrational exuberance" can lead to bubbles and panics can lead to crashes.
There's another argument given out by the business press to justify the price increases. They claim there is an underlying problem, which is that the world is running out of oil. In this scenario, higher prices are necessary not only to stem demand and encourage conservation, but to encourage further investment. This view is shared, by the way, by most environmentalists – who often advocate prices even higher than those put forth by the business press.
This view has been pushed by an endless flood of articles and books that go by such names as Running out of Crude and The End of Oil, On the Edge of a Perilous World.
This tale is old. Over the last 100 years, it has been periodically taken out of mothballs to justify higher prices. Perhaps the most famous and striking time was during the oil crunches of the 1970s. In 1972, on the eve of the first energy crisis a group of prominent experts, known as the Club of Rome, published a very famous report called "Limits of Growth" that predicted that only 550 billion barrels of oil remained and that the world would run out of oil by 1990. Now, 14 years past their supposed day of reckoning, over 700 billion barrels of oil have been consumed globally, but it seems we haven't run out of oil yet. In fact, the ratio of the world's proven reserves to production is twice as high as it was in the early 1970s, when those prominent experts were producing those doomsday scenarios.
Geology is not the only thing that determines the size of oil reserves. So does technology, and, of course, economics and politics. Over the years, there has been a steady development in technology that is making it much easier – and dramatically cheaper – to find and lift oil. Computer-assisted, three-dimensional imaging lets geologists "see" underground oil pockets. Better platform designs and drilling methods have also let companies recover more of the oil they find. And technological gains have allowed the oil industry to double the amount of oil that it recovers from existing oil wells. As a result, drillers are four times as successful at finding natural gas and six times as successful at finding oil as they were before the 1973 oil crisis. The average U.S. costs for finding oil fell from about $15 per barrel in the 1980s to $5 in 1998, according to a study published in the January/February 2000 issue of Foreign Affairs.
Since finding and producing oil is cheaper and easier, it is being discovered in more and more regions of the world. Ample new reserves are coming on line in Russia, China, in the waters off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, eastern Canada, and western Africa, as well as on shore in central Africa, South America and the frontier areas in the former Soviet Union and the far reaches of the Arctic.
As a result, in the 1990s, 37 giant new fields (each with at least 500 million barrels of recoverable reserves) were discovered, offering a total of almost 37 billion barrels of oil – of which less than 25% was located in the Middle Eastern oil countries.
Rather than running out of oil reserves, we are actually running into them. All the claims of crude oil shortages, whether in the short, medium or long term, are bogus from beginning to end. They are just excuses for the major oil companies to boost crude oil prices. After all, the oil exporting countries are not the only ones to benefit from this price rise. So do the major oil companies. The five biggest oil companies in the world own about 15% of the world's oil reserves, an amount comparable to the Middle Eastern members of OPEC. When crude oil prices rise, the oil companies' profits rise also.
The speculators and hedge funds that have been busy cornering the market in oil futures are simply betting that the oil companies will keep crude oil prices at high levels for awhile.
The big oil companies have been hiding behind the hikes in crude oil prices, while they quietly increase their profit margins not just on crude oil, but also on what their refineries produce. The profit at U.S. refineries went from $7 per barrel last year to $15 this year, a level unseen in more than two decades.
As in many other industries, the oil companies have been busy slimming down their refinery operations and distribution systems. They stopped building any new refineries. No new ones have been built in this country in three decades. Instead, during the last two decades they closed two-thirds of the oil refineries in the country. They squeezed more production out of the surviving oil refineries to partially make up for what was closed. But the net result is that over the last 10 years, U.S. refinery capacity was cut by about 10%.
Obviously, the oil companies are not done squeezing, since in California, where capacity is already considered to be extremely tight and where gasoline prices also happen to be the highest in the country, Shell has started to close its Bakersfield refinery, which had been producing about two percent of the state's gasoline and six percent of its diesel.
The oil companies have kept what they figure is the exact amount of capacity to meet ordinary demand – but very little margin above that.
The oil companies have done the same thing with inventories of gasoline that they keep on hand. They have slashed inventories from an average of a seven days supply ten years ago down to just one day now, thus reducing their storage costs.
In other words, the oil companies have adopted the same just-in-time delivery system as many factories, keeping costs as low as possible, maximizing profits versus investment and sales. Mobil Oil, which led the way in closing oil refineries and reducing inventory stocks, actually called the program: Keep Inventories Low and Lean, or KILL (no kidding).
Of course, without any spare capacity or inventory, if anything even slightly unusual happens, the inventories go down to almost zero. When people drive a bit more for a few days during the summer, or if the winters hit a stretch during which temperatures drop a bit more and people use more heat, the companies jump to raise prices, declaring a shortage. If a pipeline bursts, as happened in the Chicago area a couple of years ago, the oil companies immediately declare a shortage and raise prices throughout the Midwest.
These KILL programs also put the oil companies in a better position to take hold of a pretext, like the raising of global crude oil prices, to lift their prices on gasoline beyond the increase in the price of crude and thus quietly lift their profit margins on their refining operations also – as they have done in this latest period.
The companies use the consequences of what they do as the excuse to make the consumers pay more and thus increase oil company profits. This is not efficient – neither from the standpoint of meeting the population's needs nor of the overall functioning of the society, even if it is for the profits of the companies.
The oil companies can manage prices like this because only five companies in this country (ExxonMobil, BP, Royal Dutch/Shell, Chevron-Texaco and ConocoPhillips) control more than half the refinery capacity. They use their control over a basic industry in order to set prices as they decide. In other words, they are a cartel, no matter what their press agents claim.
If anyone still doubts that Big Oil is a cartel, all he or she has to do is remember how gasoline prices at every single gas station rose in concert right before the Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends, or watch how home heating oil prices will rise together right before the heavy heating season in winter gets under way.
A handful of oil companies known as the super majors dominate the global market. These include ExxonMobil, BP, Royal Dutch/Shell, Chevron-Texaco and Total. (ConocoPhillips, the fifth largest oil company operating in the U.S., is the sixth largest oil company in the world, slightly smaller than Total, but it is not ranked in the same class as the five super majors.) Much of the production of crude oil in the world may be under the control of particular nationalized companies, such as in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Venezuela, and so on. But the oil companies have sizeable oil reserves of their own. But what really counts is that they own and control the rest of the network, which includes ships, refineries and the distribution of petroleum products at the retail outlets. Saudi Arabia or Venezuela may own a few oil refineries, tankers, or even gas stations in the U.S. Still, their crude oil, and the crude that is produced in all the other exporting countries, has to go through the world market that is controlled by the major oil companies.
The five super majors are huge, among the 10 largest companies in the world. Their operations are so vast that they dwarf not just the biggest oil exporting countries, but in many respects all but the biggest governments in the world. The largest company amongst them is ExxonMobil. Exxon is also the largest company of any kind in the world as measured by sales, or revenues, which totaled 242 billion dollars in 2003. That is more than the budget revenue of 185 national governments, including Brazil, Canada, Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands. Only the governments of the world's six richest countries – the U.S., Japan, Germany, France, Italy and Great Britain – had revenues above this level. Exxon's global communication infrastructure rivals that of the foreign services of the majority of the world's nations.
These companies are also extremely important centers of profits. In 2003, the five biggest oil companies operating in the U.S. (ExxonMobil, Chevron-Texaco, ConocoPhillips, BP and Royal Dutch/Shell) made 53 billion dollars in net profits, that is, after taxes! And the first quarter of this year was even more profitable. Last year, Exxon alone produced 21.5 billion dollars in profits. The five biggest auto companies in the world (GM, DaimlerChrysler, Ford, Toyota and Volkswagen) produced only 15 billion dollars in profits – combined. Even if last year was extraordinarily good for the oil industry, this still gives some idea of the amount of wealth that the oil companies generate for the capitalist class.
Of course, the oil companies do not operate in a vacuum. They are tied in an infinite number of ways to the other major branches of industry (armaments, construction, automobile), as well as financial capital and banking. And they are backed up by the state apparatuses – the interior department, the military, diplomatic service and intelligence branches – of the biggest imperialist powers in the world, starting with the U.S..
The five super majors which today dominate the oil industry are the result of mergers that swept the oil industry starting in 1998, in which 12 already enormous oil companies combined to form five. Thus, Exxon merged with Mobil; Chevron, which had earlier bought up Gulf, merged with Texaco; BP bought out Amoco, Marathon and Arc; Total merged with Elf and Fina.
These companies are not exactly strangers to each other. They sprang from the same origins. The oil industry first started and developed in the U.S., where it was, almost from its beginnings, dominated by a few families. First of all, the Rockefellers controlled the Standard Oil trust and then, after its break-up in 1911, all of the companies that came out of it (the Standard Oils of New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana and California, as well as Continental Oil, Atlantic-Richfield, etc.). A few other companies, including Texaco and Gulf, were backed by the Mellons, Morgans and Vanderbilts. Following the U.S., the older European capitalists rushed to develop their own oil industry, often with heavy state intervention, out of which came Royal Dutch/Shell, British Petroleum, Petroleum Company of France (CFP), which eventually became Total.
For most of the century, the biggest of these companies, the so-called "Seven Sisters" (Exxon, Shell, British Petroleum, Chevron, Mobil, Texaco and Gulf), along with their French half-sister CFP, dominated the industry and divided up the global market in a succession of secret, interlocking sets of contracts and agreements, whose aim was to restrict production, guard respective market shares and set prices. In other words, it was an agreement among thieves to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of the world.
So, for example, after World War I, in a series of treaties and agreements that culminated in the "Red Line Agreement," the companies divided up the right to explore, develop and exploit much of the oil in the Middle East. The companies also froze market shares with the "As Is Agreement" in 1928. To guard against global overproduction, the companies decided that production quotas would be set by the company with the least need for crude. As for crude prices, they were set according to the Texas pricing formula, whereby the price of a barrel of crude oil, no matter where it was produced, was based on the production cost of a barrel of West Texas crude plus the cost of shipping it to England. In fact, Texas crude was more expensive to produce and also of poorer quality and adding the cost of its shipment to England meant that the standard price of crude was set uniformly high, despite much lower production and shipment costs in other parts of the world. Thus, the cartel was able to assure that prices gradually increased in relation to the price of marginal production, even as huge new fields and reserves came on line and the cost of production fell.
In the oil producing countries of the Middle East, Latin America, Asia and later Africa, the oil companies operated as sovereign powers with virtual control over enormous regions in those countries. The oil companies set the terms for exploration and production. In return, the oil companies made a small royalty payment and a tiny share of the profits to the host government, of course, based on what the companies decided. This was all a continuation of the colonial relationship.
When, under the impulse of nationalist movements, a few governments directly challenged the oil cartel control, as was the case with Mexico in 1938, or Iran in 1951, the oil cartel simply boycotted that country's oil and froze it out from the world market. In Mexico, this led to the rapid decline and eclipse of the national oil industry for many decades to come. In Iran, oil production was strangled, leading to a major economic crisis inside the country, which then set the stage for the U.S. and British spy services to instigate the overthrow of the government and the installation of their own puppet regime led by the Shah.
Usually, it is said that with the foundation of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) in 1960, the big crude oil producers were finally able to put together their own "cartel" to oppose the cartel of the major oil companies. In 1973-74, the OPEC cartel is credited with unleashing a worldwide energy crisis, and the quadrupling of crude oil prices. In 1979-80, OPEC was supposed to have doubled crude prices again.
This is what led all the experts, commentators and economics professors to claim that, in effect, the "oil weapon," that is, control of a basic commodity that powers the world economy, had been seized by the governments of largely underdeveloped countries. For the first time in 400 years of capitalism, the tables had supposedly been turned. The shoe was on the other foot.
And to think that this nonsense is repeated even today!
Certainly, because OPEC was blamed and is still blamed for raising oil prices in 1973 and 1979, it doesn't mean that they were behind the price rises. After all, heading OPEC were Saudi Arabia and Iran under the Shah, not exactly anti-imperialist radicals, to say the least. On the contrary, they were the two governments with the closest relations to the oil companies and the U.S. government. OPEC just took the heat for what the oil companies and the U.S. government had been pushing.
The price increases were simply a response by the oil companies and the U.S. bourgeoisie to the fact that the long term rise in the price of crude had been reversed, and had been sinking. This drop in crude prices especially from oil in the Middle East was due to many reasons, among them, that some independent oil companies had managed to gain access to some of the huge new oil reserves that were coming on line, flooding the world market. But for the biggest oil companies, the result of falling crude prices was that their profits were falling. They no longer were quite the profit centers that they had been. Obviously, with the sharp price increases in the 1970s, the big oil companies became more profitable than ever.
U.S. manufacturers also favored the price increases because they were sick of having to compete with European and Japanese industry that was largely powered by cheaper Middle East oil. With the price increases, European and Japanese manufacturers lost that advantage, and, in fact, Japan plunged into its worst post-war recession up until that time.
As for the great wealth amassed by the oil producing countries, the biggest proportion was recouped by the U.S. and the other imperialist powers, since most of it was recycled into the big imperialist countries. That money was used to pay for splurges in big, prestigious construction projects often carried out by such big engineering firms as Brown and Root (now part of Halliburton) and Bechtel. The money was also used to buy extremely expensive weapons systems, enriching arms manufacturers like Lockheed, General Dynamics, McDonnell Douglas, and on and on. In addition, the ruling elite of these oil fiefdoms deposited their share of the loot in the banks and financial centers of the imperialist countries, and used it to buy luxuries and real estate in New York, Paris and London. Very little of the windfall of oil money actually ever trickled down to the mass of people in most of the oil producing countries.
In some of these countries, there was some economic development. But it proved to be short-lived. By the early 1980s, a rising oil surplus led once again to a plummeting in crude oil prices, a fall that quickly overwhelmed OPEC. Its members, in order to try to recoup their lost revenues, increased their production, which in turn saturated the oil markets further. The economic crisis that in the 1970s had hit most of the underdeveloped countries quickly spread to the big oil producing states. Their debts soared, and their economies went into a state of permanent crisis. For example, Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, plunged into deep debt. By the mid-1980s, OPEC had ceased even to pretend that it was setting production quotas and prices.
Of course, from time to time the oil companies still trot out the specter of another supposed OPEC-caused energy crisis to have someone else to blame when the companies themselves drastically raise oil and gasoline prices, just as they have done over the last year.
The real relationship of forces in the world is reflected in the political situation in these big oil producing states.
Take Iraq, for example. Given Iraq's great oil reserves and its location at the heart of the most important oil producing region in the world, it is hardly an accident that Iraq is today occupied by 140,000 U.S. troops, along with 10,000 British troops and an additional force of 30,000 other troops (the bulk of which are 20,000 U.S.-paid mercenaries). Neither is it an accident that in the past 90 years, Iraq has been the scene of eight wars that include the war of colonial conquest (1914-1918), the war of pacification of the population (1918-1930) and the war of reoccupation (1941) – all carried out by Great Britain, the main colonial power in that region at the time. Replacing Britain in the region, the U.S. encouraged and fueled the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) in order to weaken and bleed the region, after which the U.S. bombed and invaded Iraq in Persian Gulf War I (1991) and then imposed the deadly economic embargo while carrying out a campaign of low-intensity warfare (1991-2003). This dreadful situation then served as the prelude to last year's invasion, which has opened up a new chapter of endless war.
Iraq's great wealth and potential has cost its population dearly. Millions of Iraqis have been killed and the country has been laid waste many, many times.
Yet, Iraq and the war-torn Middle East are not the exception.
Take Nigeria, the largest single oil-producing country in sub-Saharan Africa and the fifth largest oil producer in OPEC. Nigeria is part of what the U.S. and the oil companies consider the up and coming oil producing region in the world. Resources are bountiful, the quality is high and shipping routes to the U.S. are shorter than from other oil-producing regions.
Much of current oil production is concentrated in the Niger Delta, one of the world's largest wetlands. The main oil companies that operate there are Shell, Mobil and Chevron. But the oil industry provides no jobs. Daily oil spills, acid rain and other forms of pollution destroy agriculture and fishing, and pollute the drinking water. Malnutrition and disease are rampant.
Hundreds of billions of dollars worth of oil have been taken out of this region. But the people who live there are poorer than even those in the rest of the country, which is incredible since Nigeria is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita income of $260 per year. People in the Niger Delta live on less.
The population has regularly demanded the right to benefit from what they say should be "their" oil. In the early 1990s, an organization led by well-known author Ken Saro-Wiwa successfully organized and mobilized tens of thousands of people at one time. At the instigation of Shell Oil, the government arrested, tried and hanged Saro-Wiwa and several of his associates on trumped- up murder charges and crushed what remained of his organization. But other protesters have taken their place. They block oil shipments and access to drilling facilities, and they kidnap oil employees in a real fight for survival.
The oil companies have fought the protesters tooth and nail, paying the police and various special military groupings, arming them, ferrying them in company helicopters, boats and trucks. The oil companies also pay young people from one tribe to murder protesters from another, thus sowing divisions and ethnic conflicts. Human Rights Watch estimates that, on average, about 1000 people in the Niger Delta are murdered every year.
Nigeria is not the exception in Africa. Along with the development of the oil industry in Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, Chad and Cameroon have come civil wars, vast corruption and abject misery on a much greater scale than even the Middle East. Partly this is due to the fact that Africa had already been colonized, dominated and bled by imperialism for 400 years, that is, much longer than the Middle East.
And what about U.S. imperialism's own "backyard," Latin America? There are the same endless conflicts. Over the last five years, the U.S. has sent troops and mercenaries into Colombia, ostensibly to fight in its ongoing "war on drugs." However, Colombia is also an important producer of oil. The industry is run by BP-Amoco, Occidental Petroleum, and Texas Petroleum, with Exxon, Shell and Elf as major investors. The long-standing civil war has interrupted the free flow of those companies' profits, as well as threatened the stability of the Colombian government and military. The U.S. troops and mercenaries are engaged alongside of the Colombian military and paramilitary forces, not just against the guerrillas, but against the unions and workers in the oil fields, as well as against the population in general, who have already been decimated by decades of civil war.
The U.S. is also keeping troops in Colombia in order to reinforce U.S. control over the rest of the rich oil producing region that encompasses Ecuador and Venezuela. Venezuela is among the four most important oil exporters to the U.S. For several years the U.S. government has been trying to oust the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, by trying to instigate military coups and disrupting the Venezuelan economy. For the U.S. government, the fact that Chavez has taken a mildly nationalist stance toward the U.S., the fact that he has tried to carry out a few social programs for the poor and lower classes, is completely unacceptable. Obviously, for U.S. policy makers the icing on the cake is that Chavez is also shipping oil at favorable rates to Cuba.
The situation in the oil producing countries is not only awful, but getting worse. There are few illusions any more that oil wealth will lead to any of the oil producing countries' economic development, as there were during the 1970s. Instead, all the talk in academia, the business press and in reports by such non-government organizations as Human Rights Watch is about "the curse of oil."
Of course, the problem has never been the oil, just as it has never been any of the other rich agricultural or mineral resources that are found and exploited in the underdeveloped countries. The calamity has been imperialism, with its powerful corporations, whose only objective is to make profits, ever more profits, through any and all means. These companies rip off consumers, plunder producing countries, ravage entire regions and savagely repress any opposition and every revolt. These companies are more powerful than most states and they squeeze the world in their ever tightening grip.
But a force does exist that is powerful enough to bring these companies to their knees: the hundreds of thousands of workers without whom these companies could not exist. Together, the workers could do away with all the secrets and lies that are used to justify the endless racketeering and rip-offs. The workers could force a rational use not just of oil, but of all the other resources on the planet for the collective betterment of everyone.
The natural resources and the technology could be developed to improve living conditions for all of humanity, instead of just to increase the profits of a tiny minority.