Last week, as reported on Yahoo!, the chief economist of the investment bank CIBC (NYSE:CM) went on record that "We're in a world of triple digit oil prices for the foreseeable future," beginning by the end of 2008.
Increasingly, I've been hearing through the grapevine prognostications of $100/barrel oil. I put a lot more weight on CIBC's view than on Hugo Chavez's. Why? Based in Canada, CIBC prides itself on being a banker of note to the huge Canadian oil and natural resources industry. Besides, Canadians in general seem less prone to hyperbole than we Americans (or Venezuelans). As a result, I expect that a firm such as CIBC doesn't put out such statements very lightly.
What does $100 oil mean? By my calculations, each additional $10/barrel increase in oil prices, translates to about $0.40/gallon in gasoline prices -- assuming no changes in oil transportation costs, oil refinery economics and oil taxation. So, if we're seeing gasoline close to $3.00/gallon today with oil at $80/barrel, I would expect almost $4.00/gallon at $100 oil.
Higher prices for motor fuels should provide further support for the emergence of biofuels markets (both ethanol and biodiesel). Although biofuels continues to receive lots of public sector push and mass-market discussion, the economics of biofuels have suffered recently, as feedstock prices (for corn and soybeans, respectively) have been bid up by surging demand for biofuel production. The price spreads between feedstock and fuel have become so narrow that biofuels producers now have little opportunity for profit. With higher prices in motor fuels markets, there is more prospect for investments in new biofuel production to be profitable, and for existing biofuel producers to return to reasonable profitability.
Perhaps more interestingly, higher oil prices will provide greater impetus -- both from the government and from private sector investments -- for the development of next-generation biofuel technologies (e.g., cellulosic ethanol, algae-based diesel), coal-to-liquids and gas-to-liquids projects, oil shale retorting approaches, and the hydrogen infrastructure. These are very capital-intensive and long-term opportunities that many parties are leery of pursuing, in the fear that oil prices will fall back to lower levels and render the efforts uncompetitive and therefore wasted.
If we are truly going to wean ourselves off of oil, we really need high oil prices for a long duration, in order to provide ongoing economic sustenance and continuing urgency for the development of these new energy technologies. The forecast of triple-digit oil prices should therefore not be something to dread, but rather something for economic opportunists to seize.
Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.