Les prix de l'essence

jeudi 11 juin 2009 ·

Avec la crise économique actuelle, la logique économique voudrait que la récession entraîne des prix plus bas pour l'essence. Ce n'est pas le cas présentement puisque les prix de l'essence augmentent. Cela amène certains individus à se prononcer comme mon ami Antagoniste qui parle du lien entre la question des politiques monétaires et des prix de l'essence. D'autres sont moins raffinés en parlant de collusion entre les entreprises. Personellement, je pense que la vaste part des ressources pétrolières détenues par des entreprises d'État qui ont des niveaux de productivité faibles comparativement aux entreprises privées qui détiennent un part moindre des réserves peut jouer un rôle. Mais il existe des facteurs encore plus simples que celui-ci. Ceux-ci sont bien résumés par les Chicago Boyz:

1) A large and diverse group of people are extractors: Although we think of oil as being the province of a handful of national governments and major multinational corporations, compared to other natural resources, oil comes from a much more diverse range of point-of-extraction owners. Only a few dozen mines in three or four countries supply most of the world’s copper. In terms of ownership, only a handful of governments and private institutions own those mines. By contrast, there are thousands of people in North America and even in other parts of the world who own one or two little oil wells.

This means that a lot of people decide how much oil gets pumped out the ground.

My own rural middle-class family ended up owning some oil wells for a few years that produced a few thousand dollars a year. It didn’t come to a lot, spread over an entire extended family, but every little bit helped. For a time, our decisions minutely influenced the supply of oil for the entire planet.

(2) Extractors have fine control over the amount of oil they pump: If you own 10 wells, you can choose to pump from all 10 or from any number of them down to zero. Moreover, you can pump as much or as little out of any particular well as you like. The only limits are set by your distributor. You can’t pump more than he can move and you can’t pump so little that it doesn’t pay for him to move it.

You can’t do that with other resources to same degree. A coal mine has to produce at a fairly high level to justify the cost of keeping it open. Miners have some leeway in adjusting production but nothing close to that of oil extractors.

Oil extractors can significantly alter their level of production in a matter of days or weeks. Heck, on pressurized wells, turning production on and off is just a matter of opening and closing a valve.

(3) Inactive oil wells keep: You can cap an oil well and leave it for decades and then come back and start production in under a week. No other commodity gives extractors this option. Mines, even open-faced mines, must be constantly maintained or they flood and collapse. Closing and reopening a mine is a major undertaking.

(4) Extractor price sensitivity: Because of (2) and (3), extractors react quickly to changes in prices. When prices go up, they open the spigots, when prices go down, the extractor can turn the spigot off and wait for higher prices.

This is especially true of wells that have a high “lifting cost”. Lifting cost is the cost of getting oil to the surface. The lifting cost of some wells is very high, upwards of $50-$70 a barrel. These wells only operate when oil prices are high. When the price drops below the lifting cost, the extractors turn these wells off until prices rise again.

(5) Distributors and refiners can’t store oil: This is the most important factor of all. There is no economical means of storing large amounts of oil save pumping it back into the ground. The big oil tanks you see around are just temporary buffer tanks at refineries or the ends of pipelines. Once oil comes out of the ground anywhere in the world it is going to be an end product within a maximum of 120 days.

By contrast, most other natural resources can be easily stored for long periods. This makes it easy for distributors and refiners of those commodities to store up against falling prices or to take advantage of suddenly increasing prices.

Once oil is pumped it is going to move through the system to be sold as an end product as inexorably as a boulder rolls down a mountain side.

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Auteurs

Bryan Breguet est candidat au doctorat en sciences économiques à l’université de Colombie-Britannique. D’origine Suisse, il a passé les cinq dernières années au Québec au cours desquelles il s’est engagé en politique provinciale malgré le fait qu’il ne possédait pas encore la citoyenneté canadienne. Il détient un B.Sc en économie et politique ainsi qu’une maitrise en sciences économiques de l’université de Montréal. Récipiendaire de plusieurs prix d’excellences et bourses, il connaît bien les méthodes quantitatives et leurs applications à la politique.







Vincent Geloso holds a master’s degree in economic history from the London School of Economics, with a focus on business cycles, international development, labor markets in preindustrial Europe and the new institutional economics. His research work examined the economic history of the province of Quebec from 1920 to 1960. He holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from the Université de Montréal. He has also studied in the United States at the Washington Centre for Academic Seminars and Internships. Mr. Geloso has been an intern for the Prime Minister’s cabinet in Ottawa and for the National Post. He has also been the recipient of a fellowship from the Institute for Humane Studies and an international mobility bursary from the Ministère des Relations internationales du Québec. Currently, he is an economist at the Montreal Economic Institute.

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