How Much of a Benefit is Low Oil Prices?
Low oil prices have provided an economic windfall to households in New Hampshire and across the nation. Based on actual 2014 energy consumption and expenditure data for NH, changes in 2015 energy prices, and forecasts of 2015 energy consumption (actual data won’t be released for another year), I estimate that businesses and households saved about $1 billion in 2015 as a result of lower oil prices (Figure 1).
Households saved over $800 million – largely as a result of lower gasoline prices – and businesses saved nearly $200 million. In 2015 households in NH spent about $665 million less on gasoline than they did in 2014 and about $800 million less than they did in 2012 (Figure 2).
Here I am talking about the monetary impacts of lower oil prices, the distribution of impacts among states, between business and households, by different income levels, and how increased U.S. oil production is changing the demand for imported oil. While the overall impact is a net positive on the U.S. economy – especially consumers – the net benefits to our nation’s economy have been smaller than many anticipated. This is not a full accounting, I do not consider any environmental implications (I will write about some of those in future posts on carbon emissions, carbon taxes and climate change that are sure to incite the unstable) or the fact that low oil prices make Vladimir Putin only slightly more scary or any number of petroleum states that much less stable.
There was a time not long ago when low oil prices would have provided a stronger stimulus to the U.S. economy, as every dollar saved by businesses and individuals as a result of lower oil prices translated into nearly a dollar of benefits to the U.S. economy as more of the dollars saved were dollars not being sent overseas. But today many more of the petro dollars saved are dollars that would have gone to U.S. businesses and workers, reducing the overall net benefits that lower oil prices have on the U.S. economy. Figure 3 shows the dramatic increase in U.S. oil production beginning late in the last decade along with a concomitant decline in oil imports.
Make no mistake, lower oil prices are a good thing for U.S. economy overall, but the boom in oil and gas production in the U.S. includes states that are relatively new to energy production, spreading the negative impacts of a downturn in energy markets more broadly across the U.S., as well as some states who have gone from very small to more significant energy producers, deepening the negative impacts from low prices in those states. Texas, Oklahoma, Alaska, Louisiana are used to economic disruptions caused by fluctuations in oil prices (although much of Texas is now much more diverse) , North Dakota and other states not so much. Figure 4 shows the volume of oil production in 2014 by state and thus the relative exposure that these state have to fluctuations in oil prices.
The increase in U.S. oil production was spurred by high world oil prices that made it economically viable to extract oil using more costly methods, as well as improved technologies that made it possible to extract oil that could not be obtained through traditional drilling techniques. A few years ago I worked on an energy project in the Permian Basin of West Texas and Eastern New Mexico that involved enhanced oil recovery (EOR) techniques. At that time the price of oil was around $100 bbl while the break-even price of EOR was approximately $67 bbl. In that environment it is not surprising that a boom in production would occur in areas with even difficult to extract oil reserves. Continued improvements in technology have no doubt lowered the break-even price of EOR below the $67 that it was back in 2012, but probably not as low as the $48 per bbl that was the average price for U.S. crude in 2015, and certainly not as low as the $32 bbl average of January 2016. The sharp decline in oil prices since 2014 is affecting the profitability, production, and employment of energy companies and those that service and supply them. Low oil and gas prices don’t help energy producing states the way they help NH and other non-energy producing states because the benefits of lower oil and gas prices to households and businesses are mitigated by the reduction in investment and employment in oil and gas extraction, transportation, and the industries that support them – including financial industries, professional and technical industries (engineering etc.) and many others. Figure 5 shows states at the bottom of private sector job growth in 2015 – all but Vermont and Illinois are significant energy producing states.
The benefits of lower energy prices on households nationally have been large. Energy spending dropped from 6.1% of total expenditures of households in 2008 to 4.4% through mid-2015. All households benefit from lower energy prices but the benefits are not evenly distributed. Low-income consumers devote a larger share of their budgets to energy and thus lower energy prices provide a greater relative benefit to households lower on the income scale. Data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that consumers in the bottom half of the income distribution devoted 10.7% of their budget to energy expenses, while consumers in the top half of the distribution devoted 8.1% of their budgets to energy (the figures are higher in the Northeast where households spends more on heating and much more on oil heat than the national average). To some extent these differences may overstate the benefits of lower energy prices to lower-income households because the largest difference in the percentage of household expenditures on energy by income level is for electricity; lower oil prices have had little impact on electricity prices, but the benefits to lower income households are still signficant. Figure 6 shows the percentage of total household expenditures in the U.S. that are devoted to energy among households in four different income ranges.
The most important implication of U.S. oil production may be for U.S. foreign policy. Not only are oil imports on the decline as U.S. production has increased, but the sources of imported oil are also changing. Persian Gulf states are a declining source of oil imported in the U.S., while Canada is a rapidly increasing source (Figure 7).
The historical role that concerns about oil supplies have played in U.S. policies toward Persian Gulf states is debatable but a declining dependence on Persian Gulf oil at least offers the possibility that whatever U.S. involvement continues in the region will be less energy dependent. If current trends in U.S. production and imports continue, it is possible that the only country that the U.S. imports oil from in 10 years is Canada. If I have learned one thing from this presidential primary season it is that not all Canadian imports are a good thing. But, I grew up along the Canadian border and I would be pretty comfortable only relying on the great white north to meet our nation’s demand for imported oil.