Oil and gas prices

Gas prices are starting to go up in some parts of the country, so I imagine stories on the world’s future supply of oil will start turning up from places like WorldWatch, etc. An excellent article in the August 21, 1997 of the Wall Street Journal outlined the current and immediate future in the oil market.

The bottom line: even though demand for oil is expected to surge, no large price increases are expected for at least a year as new oil sources and projects are brought online. Worldwide an additional 1.3 million barrels of oil daily will be added to current production through the end of 1997 and early 1998.

Oil projects in the North Sea will add 249,000 barrels daily; in Colombia 249,000 barrels each day will be added; and Iraq is expected to begin pumping at least 750,000 barrels each day under close supervision from the United Nations. The Journal quotes Lawrence Goldstein, president of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation, as predicting crude oil prices could fall as low as $17 to $18 a barrel.

So what gives with prices in the United States? Why aren’t they declining or at least maintaining current levels rather than increasing recently?

The Journal cites an American Automobile Association analyst saying that the economy is leading more Americans to drive more miles this summer, extending the summer driving season longer than usual. Problems with important refineries have also contributed to higher-than-expected gasoline prices, which can be expected to slacken after Labor Day.

Last couple weeks

I took a brief hiatus from the population news to focus on improving other areas of the web site. Repeat visitors may not the new graphic logo for the Overpopulation FAQ as well as an improvement in linking and other changes.

I’ve also identified a good dozen topics not adequately addressed by the Overpopulation FAQ (thanks to those who gave me the often unkind feedback) which I am busy working on.

Anyone who has a question or topic they feel is ignored or missing from these pages please feel free to email me at [email protected] with any suggestions and/or complaints (p.s. if you write me a nasty email don’t expect my reply to be full of love and compromise).

WorldWatch Institute: food prices are rising and the sky is falling

I’m a big sports fan, and one of the things I hate the most is to watch one of my favorite teams lose. Even worse is when a team I follow goes on a losing streak for a few games. But never in my deepest despair do I imagine that since my team has lost the last 5 or 6 games that it will never win a game ever again; there are going to be ups and downs with even the best team.

The geniuses at the WorldWatch Institute, on the other hand, disagree. To them a periodic downturn is evidence of impending disaster. I’m referring to a press release WorldWatch released touting its new policy paper, The Agricultural Link: How Environmental Deterioration Could Disrupt Economic Progress, which direly warns, “rising grain prices may be the first global economic indicator to tell us that we are on an economic and demographic path that is environmentally unsustainable.”

Here’s the deal. For the past 50 years or so grain prices have been going down, down, down. Grain is now incredibly cheap by historical standards. But a few years ago grain prices started rising. WorldWatch claims they’ve risen 39 percent over the last three years.

Why? Because the rate of growth of grain production slowed. If you look at the Food and Agriculture Organization’s figures for 1995/6 through 1997/8 it’s obvious that increases in production of wheat, coarse grains and milled rice have come to a halt. Should we be concerned?

Not really. WorldWatch makes the claim that the decrease in agricultural production is due to environmental deterioration, but in fact it has much more mundane sources. First, a major contributor to increase in prices has been the major decline in output from the former Soviet republics which are still embroiled in political instability and uncertainty. In the United States and Europe, environmental and economic policies in general have both been directed at reducing overall grain production. Finally, the agricultural price system seems to have worked exactly as it should.

In 1995/96 grain prices soared and cereal stocks were depleted. The price increase, however, encouraged farmers to increase grain production and the FAO reports that based on its forecast for 1997/98, “cereal production will meet expected 1997/98 consumption requirements and should allow for a further modest replenishment of cereal stocks for the second consecutive year.” According to the FAO, global end-of-season stocks should be 17 to 18 percent of total used, and by 1997/98 the ratio will be back up to around 16 percent. Still not ideal, but headed in the right direction, contra WorldWatch.

Beyond misinterpreting the data, WorldWatch jumps through a lot of hoops to arrive at its apocalyptic position.

In its press release, for example, it claims water shortages are an impending problem and “the inevitable cutbacks in water pumping and irrigation that follow aquifer depletion are now starting … as countries press against the limits o their water supplies, cities typically satisfy their growing needs by taking water from agriculture.” Why is this a problem? Even WorldWatch has produced studies demonstrating that world agricultural usage of water is excessive. If anything, WorldWatch shouldn’t be afraid that people will want to stop subsidizing irrigation projects in Texas, but instead be thankful the world is on the verge of far more efficient water use patterns. In fact in its conclusions one of its action items is “raising the efficiency of water use.”

WorldWatch’s conclusions show where the organization’s heart really is. Claiming stabilizing the population is the only solution, it calls for actions on “the scale and urgency of … World War II.” Forget that the world is already well on its way toward population stability and then decline without Lester Brown’s intervention. Forget that there’s not a lot that can be done in the worst areas, such as Africa, unless and until those areas free themselves from authoritarian rule. No, the only way to save the world from collapse is to let Brown and his chums remake the world in their own image.

Sorry, Lester, but the only thing that seems unsustainable here is your reasoning.

Famine In 1997

On August 14, the United Nations released a list of nations in Africa which could face famine conditions over the next few months.

Sierra Leone and Tanzania are currently the worst off. In Sierra Leone, a military coup in May led many farmers to abandon their crops and as a result the country is currently in the midst of a food crises which could turn into a famine.

Burundi and Rwanda, still reeling from ethnic conflicts and massage refugee problems, have yet to recover to their pre-crisis position. In Rwanda, for example, food production is still almost 20 percent below what it was in 1990. As in Sierra Leone, military attacks have forced many farmers to flee.

Meanwhile up to 40 percent of the population in Burundi have abandoned their farms and fields.

Eastern Africa has been hit by a drought, sending food prices soaring in Kenya and Uganda. Tanzania has been especially hit hard with almost total crop failure in many significant agricultural areas.

The FAO reports that Angola, Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Liberia, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Somalia and Sudan are also in need of food aid.

If only the warlords in Africa would stop fighting long enough to let their people grow the food the continent needs to survive.

EPA Vs. Pesticide Alternatives

As environmentalists are quick to tell us, pesticide usage around the world has often been excessive. In addition pesticides are expensive – one of the things which holds back intensive agriculture in parts of the developing world.

An alternative to heavy pesticide use is developing specialized plant species which ward of pesticides naturally, without needing heavy spraying of pesticides. Unfortunately if the Environmental Protection Agency gets its way, research and development into alternatives to chemical pesticides may grind to a halt.

The EPA is proposing to regulate the substances which plants produce to protect themselves against pests and diseases. That’s right – plants which naturally produce pesticides to ward of insects (which is basically every single known species) will have to be tested and given a special “plant-pesticide” label.

The EPA’s proposal is aimed specifically at genetically modified plants. Extremist environmentalists such as Jeremy Rifkin have apparently sold the EPA on the notion that genetically modified organisms need special regulation even though they pose no greater risk to human health or the environment than plants crossbred using traditional methods.

The combination of labeling all such plants as containing pesticides along with additional regulatory costs for registering new hybrids would likely mean an end to much promising development. As John Sanford, Ph.D., president of Sanford Scientific, Inc., put it, “This policy creates a major disincentive for all but a few companies and will force most companies to abandon efforts to develop genetic alternatives to chemical pesticides.”

Common Population Myths

In my opinion one of the best independent sources for information about information is Joel Cohen, head of the Laboratory of Populations at Rockefeller University and author of How Many People Can the Earth Support?

Surfing the web the other day I came across a summary of an article Cohen wrote for Discover magazine, “Dispelling Common Population Myths Is First Step in Addressing Overpopulation.” Several of the myths Cohen mentions are de riguer for most of the people on the Internet who worry about population.

The first myth Cohen dispels is the idea that human population grows exponentially – it doesn’t (the amount of time it takes world population to double, for example, has declined significantly since the mid-1960s).

Cohen does an excellent job of puncturing a lot of the nonsense about “carrying capacity” which is a far more complex (in many ways almost unintelligible) concept than anti-population zealots imagine or will admit. Cohen has an excellent discussion of the problems involved with the “carrying capacity” concept in his book.

He also defends the Roman Catholic Church against the sort of bigots who claim that religion’s teachings are responsible for the population problem.

If only overpopulation zealots would start reading books and articles by mainstream demographers and population experts rather than getting all their materials secondhand from people with little formal training in population issues (can someone say Paul Ehrlich and Lester Brown?)