Middle Eastern unrest has fuelled a massive rise in fuel prices, coming at the worst possible time for a coalition that has just raised VAT.
Deep in the heart of Oklahoma, something is stirring in the sleepy prairie town of Cushing. A modest settlement of about 8,300 people, Cushing is the oil hub of north America. A handful of shops, barbecue restaurants and the Buckhorn Bar are dwarfed by hundreds of vast storage tanks capable of holding 45m barrels of oil.
Cushing, heavily defended by the US authorities as potential national security target, is the official delivery point for oil orders placed on Nymex, the commodities exchange. It is the junction at which pipelines running south from Canada’s oil sands meet oil coming north from the Gulf of Mexico. And just at the moment, the town’s oil tanks are 90% full – stocks stand at more than 40m barrels, a quantity of oil worth $4.6bn (£2.9bn).
High oil prices mean furious activity in speculation, hedging – and storage in Cushing. The town enjoys a renaissance each time the price soars. But for the rest of the developed world, oil inflation means misery. Petrol prices in Britain hit £6 a gallon, or 132p a litre, last week, which, according to the AA’s Edmund King, marks “the point at which the wheels start to come off mobility in 21st century Britain”. Filling up a family car costs about £80 – a substantial chunk of the average gross weekly wage of £499. Supermarket chain Morrisons became the latest British business to squeal with pain last week, declaring that the fuel price has sapped consumers’ spending power by £400m in a year.
The uprising in Libya, with fighting around the refinery in Ras Lanuf, has all but eliminated output from a nation with the world’s ninth biggest oil reserves. With unrest rippling across the Middle East, Friday’s “day of rage” in Saudi Arabia unnerved traders. Elections are looming in Nigeria which, historically, have meant violent disruptions to that nation’s oil output. And militants bombed a major oil pipeline in Iraq on Thursday.
As western economies stagger haphazardly towards a fragile recovery, this oil spike has come at a dismal moment. Nouriel Roubini, the endearingly pessimistic economist dubbed “Dr Doom”, has suggested that a sustained oil price of $140 could push the US and European economies into a double-dip recession. In a more extreme scenario, a price of $200 could mean global economic growth grinding to a complete halt.
With take-home pay barely rising and inflation running at 4%, Britons were already facing their worst squeeze in disposable income for a generation. Doug McWilliams, chief executive of the Centre for Economic and Business Research, says that oil has knocked the coalition’s strategy for six: “With 20/20 hindsight, the government’s VAT rise was at best mistimed and, at worst, a serious error.”
Environmentalists see a silver lining in our economic predicament. This reminder of our reliance on black gold from unstable parts of the world could help to push governments towards policies friendlier to renewable fuel – and inject a bit of vim into still-tepid demand for electric vehicles.
But our short-term fragility is alarming. Howard Archer, chief UK economist at IHS Global Insight, worries that rocketing oil could lead to a fresh sovereign debt crisis in Europe: “Sustained high oil prices could lead to weak growth in the eurozone, which could contribute to a further flaring up of European debt problems.”
Let’s not panic yet. This isn’t a repetition of the oil shock of the 1970s – the worst of which was sparked when Arab nations deliberately held back supply to protest at western support for Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. This time around, there isn’t that deliberate dislocation. Many of the Arab nations themselves would prefer a stabler global economic picture. Saudi Arabia claims it favours a price of between $70 and $80 per barrel and is increasing output – although the kingdom is much faster to act when the price falls than when it soars.
One prominent US energy analyst, Stephen Schork, detects one sign of hope that the price may peak – airlines, which have an epic history of bad calls on fuel, are getting into the market to hedge themselves against a further increase: “They didn’t see the need to hedge at below $40 a barrel. Now they do. Once you get these fools into the market buying, as a contrarian, your eyes begin to light up and you look for a peak.”
Back in Cushing, these are exciting times, akin to the summer of 2008 when oil shot up to $140 a barrel. Will the price go higher this time? No economist seems able to say. So much lies in the hands of Colonel Gaddafi, the rebels of Ras Lanuf and Saudi Arabia’s quietly restless agitators for change.