The Oil Weapon Myth
One of the most popular canards in politics today is the notion that we need to reduce our dependence on “foreign oil.” Governor Blunt repeated this chestnut at an address to (who else?) the Missouri Corngrowers Association.
I don’t blame Blunt for pandering to a powerful constituency. Lots of politicians?Democrat and Republican?have used the alleged problem of foreign oil as part of their justification for providing more welfare to corn farmers. But just because everyone says we need to end our “dependence” on foreign oil doesn’t mean it’s true.
The most fundamental thing to understand about oil economics is that oil is that it’s an interchangible global commodity. (It is, in economics jargon, fungible) if we stopped buying oil from Iran or Saudi Arabia, they would just turn around and sell their oil to China, France, or Japan instead. Oil-exporting countries, by and large, don’t care who they sell their oil to, and the laws of supply and demand ensure that they’ll be able to sell their oil to somebody, albeit perhaps at a somewhat lower price.
It’s sometimes argued that all the oil in the Middle East requires us to get involved in foreign conflicts like the war in Iraq. But this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either. Obviously, there are lots of good reasons to prefer a peaceful, democratic Middle East to one ruled by erratic despots. But despots seem just as willing as anyone else to sell us oil. Foreign countries don’t sell us their oil as a personal favor. They sell us oil because we have the money to pay for it. No matter who’s in charge in Iran or Saudi Arabia, they’ll most likely be interested in the revenues that come with oil exports. And as the richest country on Earth, we’ll have little trouble outbidding other nations for the oil we need.
But doesn’t our dependence on foreign oil make us subject to blackmail from those countries? Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren, two economists at the Cato Institute, explain why this is silly:
Even if you think that OPEC has the means and motive to use this alleged oil weapon, there’s not a thing we can do about it. First, even if every drop of oil we consumed came from Oklahoma, Texas, and Alaska, a cutback in OPEC production would raise domestic oil prices as high as if all our oil came from Saudi Arabia. That’s because there are no regional markets for oil — only global markets — and because prices always reflect opportunity costs in free markets, regional prices invariably rise to the world price. In 1979, for instance, Great Britain was “energy independent” — virtually all the crude oil it consumed came from the North Sea. But the oil price spike of 1979 hit Great Britain as hard as it hit Japan, a country dependent upon imports for its oil. No country can wall itself off from the world market.