Thursday, October 25, 2012


Where we've been...where we are...where we're headed.

By Charles Stuart
Retired Petroleum Exploration and Research Geologist

Earlier this year I wrote a brief review (“Petroleum Imports, Exports, and the Price of Gasoline—A Review”) outlining the major factors that contribute to crude oil and gasoline prices.  This seemed necessary to counter misinformation from Republicans blaming President Obama for high gasoline prices last spring in the face of rising domestic production of crude oil and increased exports of U.S. refined petroleum products.  Gasoline prices fell during the summer, but rose sharply in late summer and early fall, again resulting in criticism of the President for not doing more to promote the petroleum industry and other energy industries.

As summarized in my earlier report, crude oil prices are set on global markets such as the futures (purchases made for delivery in the future), spot (oil sold for immediate delivery) and private markets, and not by U.S. companies or by any U.S. government entity, including the President.  Factors that contribute to crude oil prices are:

  • How much oil OPEC --the most important producing cartel-- exports (more or less oil is shipped); at present, there are adequate crude oil supplies in the global market, although the international embargo has reduced Iranian oil exports, primarily to Europe.
  • Sharp changes in demand (e.g., China, India, the U.S.); at present global demand is down because of weak economic conditions decreasing demand. 
  • The risk, or fear of risk, of supply disruption from geopolitical tensions (e.g., recurring issues with Iran and potential closure of the Strait of Hormuz); recently there has been unrest in the middle east, but there has been little or no affect on oil supplies.

The price of crude oil was in the $100-120 range early in the year mostly because of concerns over Iranian threats and the Strait of Hormuz.  This accounted for much of the rise in gas prices last spring.  However, in late spring oil prices fell and have remained in the $80 to $100 range for most of the time.  Today’s price (10/25/2012) ~$88 is still in that price range.  My conclusion is that global prices don’t account for the late summer (post-Labor day) surge in gasoline prices.

Other factors that contribute to crude oil and gasoline prices are domestic in nature:

  • Increasing domestic production of crude oil 
  • Capacity and proximity to pipelines and refineries 
  • The recession and less driving 
  • More efficient cars 
  • Use of ethanol in gasoline
  • A glut of gasoline 
  • Speculation.  

All of these are important, but the most talked about is domestic oil production.  We’re currently in the middle of an oil boom brought about by hydraulic fracturing of shale (“fracking”).  The boom has centered on North Dakota but is spreading to a number of states primarily in the mid-continent.  New production from these sources, as well as in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, has boosted oil production significantly. Total U.S. production for the first seven months of 2012 increased 13% over the same period last year.  Part of this increased production has offset oil imports, so is making us less dependent on foreign sources.  In addition, U.S. exports of crude oil and refined products have increased 10.5% in the first seven months of this year compared to last year.  This includes gasoline.  It seems that if we export there should be an excess of product and that should drive down the price of gasoline, but it hasn’t happened.  I don’t know why not, but it’s difficult to see how the President could be held responsible.

The President has also been criticized for not leasing more Federal land for oil and gas exploration.  The fracking boom is primarily in the mid-continent where there is little Federal land, so there’s not much the President can do there.  Also fracking has potential environmental risks that may not always be considered.  Drilling and leasing in the Gulf of Mexico has resumed, so there shouldn’t be a problem there.  Gov. Romney wants leases to be granted off Virginia where prospects are uncertain.  Could this be an attempt to influence Virginia voters?  In the Rocky Mountains, much Federal land is already leased, but companies want to drill near (or in?) national parks and monuments in order to frack; probably not a good idea.  Utah has vast oil shale deposits, much of them on Federal lands that could be leased, but a viable extraction process hasn’t been demonstrated yet that doesn’t potentially contaminate the land surface or groundwater supplies.  The Bureau of Land Management is currently hosting public review meetings to address local concerns.

Most of the factors noted above should decrease oil prices not increase them.  This should factor into lower gasoline prices.  Why then have gas prices shot up so abruptly?  There are two additional factors of a temporary or seasonal nature that I didn’t mention before that partially explain higher prices:
  1. Fires or mechanical problems shut down or decreased production from three major refineries, two in California and one in Houston.  This significantly limited supplies in California, which cannot import gasoline from other states because of strict requirements for emission-reduction components of the gasoline.  While California gas prices are always the highest in the nation, it has resulted in $5 gas at some locations.  The loss of refined products from the Texas refinery could be made up by supplies from surrounding areas, so the affect has not been as significant.
  2. This is the time of year for many areas to change gasoline additives for the winter season, which adds to the price.

Of the major factors affecting gas prices, this leaves speculation.  While I don’t have any specific information on whether someone is trying to influence the crude oil and/or gasoline markets, it does seem odd that prices have gone up so abruptly this close to the presidential election.  However, all I can do is speculate about it.

Lastly I have a few words about natural gas and coal in the overall context of energy utilization.  Natural gas production has gone up markedly because of the fracking technology currently being exploited for oil production.  It has been so successful, in fact, that there is a huge glut of natural gas on the market.  This has driven down natural gas prices, slowed exploration efforts to find more, and made natural gas a strong competitor to coal for electricity generation.  At present, the cost of generating electricity is close to the same for gas and coal, but natural gas has half the CO2 emissions as coal and none of the particulate pollutants.  Consequently many coal-fired power plants have converted to natural gas.  When Republicans tell coal miners that Obama and the EPA have somehow forced this change, it’s not true.  It’s the free market for low-cost and trouble-free fuels.  (It is true that the EPA stopped some hilltop mine developments in the Appalachians, because this kind of mine pollutes and clogs stream channels with silt, and destroys towns.)  As an added side benefit of coal replacement, in addition to improved auto efficiency, annual CO2 emissions in this country have declined over the past few years.  Natural gas is the ideal bridge fuel from oil and coal to energy sources of the future whatever they may be.

Moosetracks Team Sends GOTV Volunteers to Colorado

Where we've been...where we are...where we're headed.

By Dan Syroid

Three of us including LaVonne Maloney, Doug Vilnius and myself traveled to CMU to get out the vote on Campus all day on October 24. Early voting in Colorado runs from October 22 thru Friday November 2 with a gap for three days before election day on November 6.  The weather on the 24th was blustery with some high winds that blew our tent away. We started at 9 am with a table at our normal post outside the Student Union building, but by noon, due to winds and threat of rain, had to move just inside the student union where we stayed until student traffic died down around 4.  The student union (official name: University Center) houses a good cafeteria and casual dining area that includes deli, pizza, mexican, sandwich and sodas and gourmet coffee. It also includes administrative offices and has high student and faculty traffic.  Both locations turned out to be productive in making contact with students and encouraging early voting.

CMU has a modern campus and has an enrollment of over 8000 students. Our approach, with La Vonne taking the lead, was to ask passing students "Do you support the president?" If they said yes as many did, we would pass out a flyer indicating the nearest location to CMU for early voting which is about 2 miles away. At Alicia D's (OFA CO) suggestion, we offered rides to the poll for students, but only one accepted.  It is possible that a "ride to the polls" effort with more advance notice to the students could be more effective.  Here are the estimates on the nature and number of our contacts:  

Total number of students and faculty contacted:                    350

Number of Obama supporters we gave early vote flyers to:     130

Number that said they had already voted for Obama:               50

Number of undecideds we engaged in lengthy discussions:      20

La Vonne said that she spoke to more people in an effective way on the 24th than on all her 5 previous trips to CO combined.  Based on these results it would be great if we could have one or more trips to CMU during the next few days prior to the end of early voting on Nov 2.  Unfortunately, the three of us have other commitments and will not be able to repeat an early vote campaign.  However, it would be great if others would like to set up a trip back to CMU.  It would need to be during the week since there is little activity on campus on Sat and Sun.  I will be glad to supply whatever help, materials and contacts to do a repeat trip.  

Special thanks go out to Igor and Mallory for arranging for gas cards and a great place to stay in GJ, to Alicia D in OFA CO office for her help with materials and posters, to Don and Leslie Wood for contributing the $100 table fee to CMU, and to Sheryl and Jim for great conversations and putting us up for the night in GJ...and of course to my great team mates La Vonne and Doug.

Dan Syroid is a Park City resident and member of the Summit/Wasatch Counties OFA team.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Moose Tracks -- The Highest Good

Where we've been...where we are...where we're headed

Today we are going to talk about ethics & morality. A busload of politicians were driving down a country road when the bus suddenly ran off the road and crashed into an old farmer's field. The old farmer heard the tragic crash so he rushed over to investigate. He then began digging a large grave to bury the politicians. A few hours later, the local sheriff was driving past the farmer's field and noticed the bus wreck. He approached the old farmer and asked where all the politicians had gone. The old farmer explained that he'd gone ahead and buried all of them. "Were they ALL dead?" asked the puzzled sheriff. "Well, some of them said they weren't," said the old farmer, "but you know how them politicians lie."
Mark Twain once remarked, "Always do what is right. It will gratify half of mankind and astound the other.” Today's Gospel invites us to think about morality, about choosing what is right. Moral philosophy, developing a moral compass is a lot like navigating at sea. It can take time & much effort to develop the necessary wisdom & skills to live a life that is good, spiritually rich & emo- tionally satisfying. The first seafarers began by keeping land in sight. That was the first trick of navigation—follow the coast. To find an old fishing ground or the way through a shoal, one could line up landmarks, such as a near rock against a distant point on land. But what if land were no- where nearby? The Phoenicians looked to the heavens. The sun moving across the commonly cloudless Mediterranean sky gave them their direction. The Phoenicians knew the East as Asu (sun- rise) and the West as Ereb (sunset). At night, they steered by the stars. The philosopher Thales of Miletos taught Ionian sailors to navigate by the Little Bear constellation fully 600 years before the birth of Christ. Before the invention of the compass, watch, and the sextant, the mariner's main guide was latitude. To obtain their latitude, Arabs measured the altitude above the horizon to a known star, and then deduced from this the altitude of the Pole Star, (since the Pole Star was the one star that did not move in the sky).
Is there anything equivalent to the Pole Star in the area of morality; is there anything like a perma- nently fixed point in the sky by which we can navigate during our journey in life? Aristotle, who lived about 300 years before Jesus, said yes. The Pole Star of moral decision-making is that which is desired for itself & for nothing else. Aristotle noticed that all human action was rooted in desire; everything we do we do because we are wanting something. He then noticed that most of the time, we want one thing in order to acquire another thing. We want a new coat because we desire to stay warm. We want an All-Wheel SUV because we want to be able to get around when the snow gets deep. Aristotle then asked what I think is one of the most important questions anyone has ever asked; is there something that all of us desire, not to get something else, but just for itself? If there is, could it serve as our moral Pole Star, our fixed point in relation to which all our moral decision- making can be guided & directed?
To answer this important question, he used the same technique very familiar to most 4 year olds; he asked a series of why-questions. You say you want a new coast....why? Because you do not want to be cold....why? Because you want to be comfortable....why? Because you want to be happy in life; you want a life that is characterized by happiness, by a profound sense of satisfaction. Happiness, Aristotle suggested, is the highest good; "happiness then is something complete & self-sufficient, since it is the end of the things pursued in action."
But what is true happiness for Aristotle? Is it just a feeling? Is happiness simply an emotional state of well-being; it is just the absence of pain or suffering? No, happiness goes far beyond a tempo- rary, transitory good feeling. Happiness is the state of living in harmony with one's highest self, in accord with one's essence, core, or being. The essential quality of our humanity that separates us from the animal world is our capacity for reason; for an intelligence that allows us to think crea- tively, rationally, critically & self-consciously. As far as we know, we are the only creatures on earth who can be aware of & reflect upon our own passions, emotions, desires & actions. This means we can use our reason & intelligence to choose, to choose to live in a manner that expresses our ability to transcend our lesser desires & passions in the service of living in harmony with the kinds of thoughts, desires & actions that will bring health, satisfaction & goodness to ourselves & others. Because we are in our essence beings capable of rationality & self-awareness, we can choose to avoid extremes & excesses by living our lives with moderation & balance. The life of rationality is the life of happiness, the "good life." Tana French in her book, In the Woods, puts it this way, "It's not that you do the right thing and hope it pays off; the morally right thing is by defi- nition the thing that gives the biggest payoff.”
I think most of us would agree that it would not be too difficult for us to develop a list of examples of how our nation & culture seem to be in trouble. And while we all tend to think in terms of taxes, deficits & debts, I suspect the more profound problem is a moral & spiritual one. For example, one morning this week I watched a panel discussion on C-SPAN. The panel of business leaders was discussing the sense of anxiety & dis-ease that seems pervasive these days. One of the panelists spoke about a turn that occurred in the business community decades ago that has led to a kind of moral impoverishment & lack of vision for the future. He noted that several decades ago, the busi- ness schools along with the intelligentsia within the business community began to think & talk almost exclusively about profit as the mission of corporations; increasing the profit margins of the company became more & more the sole target & the underlying justification for all the company & its employees did. The aggressive pursuit of efficiency & profit eclipsed every other moral & spiri- tual concern, every other human value within corporate culture. Lost in this movement was any sense of the company's potential & responsibility to make their community or the world a better place to live; any vision of a Highest Good, a Transcendent Value, a moral Pole Star that could not only motivate people to want to do well, but could infuse them with meaning & purpose. A lesser vision eclipsed a greater one & in the process, we lost our way. We lost our connection with who we are in our essence.
Put simply, such reductionism kills the human soul & suffocates the human spirit. This is the warn- ing of Aristotle & Jesus; do not place the lesser in the place of the superior, do not replace a deep appreciation of who we are created to be with an inhumane, objectified vision of our humanity; do not make gods out of pleasure, wealth & status and thereby neglect the Highest Good, the Ultimate Love that is able to give our lives the moral direction & wisdom required for true freedom, happi- ness & richness in life. Both Aristotle & Jesus teach that the life we are all looking for, the life of profound happiness & deep satisfaction can only be found as we commitment ourselves to a life of loving & pursuing the Highest Good, a life of loving God. Open your heart, make the Sacred the central concern of your life, let the love of God inform all of your decisions & see what happens. AMEN.
October 14, 2012