Obama & McCain: Here’s a real way to reduce gas prices!

Oil prices have continued their steady march, breaking through $135/barrel (which implies gas around 4.25) and climbing. As noted previously, the fundamentals driving oil prices higher are steady growth in global demand for oil combined with flat supply – an Econ 101 recipe for higher prices. What’s a presidential candidate to do about the situation? John McCain and Hillary Clinton both expressed strong support for a repeal in summer gas taxes; Barack Obama chose not to hop on the bandwagon, but offered no immediate alternative. So what can we do in the short term in this regard?

First, eliminate the use of heating oil in American homes. Heating oil and diesel fuel are essentially the same product, so heating oil demand directly impacts the price of diesel and gasoline. Replacing oil heating with gas heating would replace demand for imported oil with demand for natural gas that is produced primarily in the US and Canada.

Eight million homes in the US still use heating oil, and it accounts for roughly 2% of all oil demand in the US. Since oil prices are decided at the margin, a 1% drop in demand could significantly impact price. A $4000 tax credit would convince most heating oil users to switch immediately, and would send a strong signal to gas utilities to expand their service areas. If four million homes switched to gas overnight, this would cost taxpayers $16 Billion in one-time tax credits, about the same as two summers of the McCain/Clinton tax holiday plan. But the additional natural gas demand would be manageable, and the market signal of reduced oil demand would have swift impact.

Second, buy out old gas guzzlers and crush them. Since new vehicles are much more efficient on average, buying old junkers that get less than 20mpg would be an efficient way to reduce oil demand, while potentially helping poorer consumers to find new transportation. For example, offering $2000 per inefficient old car would enable many drivers to retire their old vehicles and move to new, efficient vehicles by using the money as a down payment. 10 million cars could be retired by spending $20 billion, and if each 15mpg vehicle were replaced with a 25mpg vehicle, 210,000 barrels per day of consumption could be eliminated.

Replacing oil heat and getting rid of old gas guzzlers may sound wonkish, but together these ideas could reduce US oil consumption nearly 5%. Unlike many plans under discussions, these steps are feasible and can be implemented today. Of course, these are only steps in a larger energy plan – but it’s better than many of the steps that politicians are currently advocating!

Calculations:

8 million homes * 730 gallons per year / 42 gallons per barrel / 365 days = 381,000 barrels per day

Converting 200,000 bpd of heating to natural gas requires 7 BCF (billion cubic feet) per week of natural gas. Since this consumption is wintertime only, it’s probably closer to 20 bcf per week, which is large, but not unsustainable, given that the US draws roughly 100 BCF per week from storage during the winter.
For cars, if each old 15mpg car is driven 12,000 miles per year, it consumes 800 gallons per year, compared to 480 gallons for the same distance in a 25mpg car. This equates to a savings of 3.2 billion gallons per year, which is equivalent to 210,000 barrels/day.