Climate change groups were noticeably absent from the recent public discussion about the rising price of petrol. Nobody was saying publicly that if we are to turn emissions around, we have to make it more expensive to drive. Not the Greens, not Generation Zero or 350.0rg. Nobody. It had been a unanimous outcry of pain against high petrol prices. Why? Surely lower petrol prices would clog up our roads, get people off public transport and adversely impact our emissions?
Here was a discussion about how the margins had increased in Wellington and the South Island yet nobody had said we should drive less so use petrol and reduce our carbon footprint. Nobody came out with a comment that the oil companies have a growing debt burden because it is getting more and more uneconomic to get oil out of the ground, so it is not surprising. They have been binging on debt and are struggling to pay dividends and find new barrels. The big four doubled their net debt between 2014-2016.
The public debate was started by Judith Collins the Minister of Energy and Resources after a report came out, and Labour’s Stuart Nash praised her for ordering the report. Labour’s Stuart Nash praised her for ordering the report.
So how important is petrol to us? The average Kiwi family spends $42.30 a week on petrol – only $8 less than their average weekly spend on meat, fruit and veggies. That is mighty close. It won’t take much for petrol to be a bigger part of the budget than food. And to complicate it, when petrol costs rise food costs mostly get passed on to us.
But then I thought of the implications. The gross profit margin on fuel at the pump had doubled to about 30 cents a litre in Wellington and the South Island over the past four years and gone up by 5c a litre elsewhere. It has something to do with Gull only selling petrol north of Levin, but it is more than that.
The petrol retailers Z Energy, BP, Mobil, Caltex and Gull all defended their positions. Maybe the companies are suffering from their growing debt burden so increasing their margins are the only way to stay solvent.
Ten years ago when many environmentalists were involved with peak oil we would argue that the price of oil will one day be over $100 a barrel. It hasn’t turned out that way because we didn’t factor in debt or falling interest rates. As actuary Gail Tverberg says, the economy was far more complex than the original model assumes. “When interest rates fall, this tends to allow oil prices to rise, and thus allows increased production. This postpones the Peak Oil crisis, but makes the ultimate crisis worse.”
We all remember that the economy slowed right down when the price of oil spiked in 2008. That showed us how critical the price of oil is. High prices on energy products ripple through the economy is many different ways. Just thinking about the price of petrol gives a misleading impression. Tverberg says, “Because interest rates, debt, wages, and oil prices (and, in fact, commodity prices of all kinds) are linked, the system is much more complex than what most early modellers assumed was the case.”
Not all of us can get a handle on the huge complexity of it all and I am no exception. But I know Tverberg believes the price of oil will not rise beyond about $50 a barrel because consumers can’t afford it.
Environmental commentators are faced with several problems. First they are unlikely to have an understanding of the complexity of the peak oil problem and secondly because they know that saying petrol prices should rise (through increased taxes) will be unpopular. The petrol price components vary.
What should happen of course for climate change purposes is for the Government to increase taxes on petrol, diesel etc. The fact that the oil companies have been the villain has excused the government for inaction. Now we can cry together that the oil companies are a greedy, conniving cartel. I am not sure that does much to reverse climate change trends.
Back in 2015 the IMF issued a warning that permanently low fossil fuels are choking off investment in renewable sources of energy and hindering the fight against climate change. A year later after a big study, the World Bank chimed in.