Tag: oil market

As resources become scarce, the price mechanism works to push up the price (see, for example, Box 9.11 in Economics 8th ed). If you look at the price of petrol over the past few decades, there has been a general upward trend – part of this is due to growth in demand, but part is due to oil being a scarce resource. Many millions have been spent on trying to find alternative fuels and perhaps things are now looking up!

Air Fuel Synthesis, a small British company, has allegedly managed to make ‘petrol from air’. Following this, the company has unsurprisingly received finance and investment offers from across the world. However, the entrepreneur Professor Marmont has said that he does not want any company from the oil industry to get a stake in this firm. This doesn’t mean that investment is not needed or on the cards, as in order to increase production of petrol from thin air financing is needed. Professors Marmont said:

We’ve had calls offering us money from all over the world. We’ve never had that before. We’ve made the first petrol with our demonstration plant but the next stage is to build a bigger plant capable of producing 1 tonne of petrol a day, which means we need between £5m and £6m

Whilst the process appears to be a reality, Air Fuel Synthesis is a long way from being able to produce en masse. However, it does offer an exciting prospect for the future of petrol and renewable energy resources in the UK. At the moment oil companies appear to be uninterested, but if this breakthrough receives the financing it needs and progress continues to be made, it will be interesting to see how the big oil companies respond. The following articles consider this break-through.

Company that made ‘petrol from air’ breakthrough would refuse investment from big oil Independent, Steve Connor (19/10/12)
British engineers create petrol from air and water Reuters, Alice Baghdijan (19/10/12)
Petrol from air: will it make a difference? BBC News, Jason Palmer (19/10/12)
British engineers produce amazing ‘petrol from air’ technology The Telegraph , Andrew Hough (18/10/12)


  1. Explain the way in which the price mechanism works as resources become scarce. Use a diagram to help your explanation.
  2. As raw materials become scarce, prices of the goods that use them to work or require them to be produced will be affected. Explain this interdependence between markets.
  3. Why is investment from an oil company such a concern for Professor Marmont?
  4. Why is there unlikely to be any impact in the short run from this new breakthrough?
  5. If such a technology could be put into practice, what effect might this have on the price of petrol?
  6. How might oil companies react to the growth in this technology?

The price of petrol at the pumps has risen substantially over the past few years. In the UK, according to the AA, the average price between January and June 2011 was 133.13p. In the same period in 2010 it was 116.68p; and in the same period in 2008 it was 109.00p.

Over the first six months of 2011, the amount of petrol sold fell by 5.2 per cent. This was on top of the decline in consumption over the previous four years. Between 2006 and 2010 consumption of petrol fell by 17.4%. The consumption of petrol and diesel are given in the following table.

UK consumption of petrol and diesel (tonnes millions)

2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Petrol 18.14 17.59 16.68 15.76 14.99
Diesel 20.15 21.07 20.61 20.06 20.87
Total 38.29 38.66 37.29 35.82 35.86

Source: Digest of United Kingdom energy statistics (DUKES) (Department of Energy and Climate Change)

So what has caused this decline in petrol sales? Are there multiple factors at work here? Have a look at the articles and consider the explanations.

Cash-strapped drivers cut petrol use by 15 per cent Channel 4 News (5/10/11)
Sales of petrol slump as skint motorists cut costs Daily Record, Jamie Grierson (5/10/11)
Petrol Sales Plunge As Cash Squeeze Tightens Sky News (6/10/11)
Fuel cost rise ‘forcing change in driver habits’ TRL News, Mary Treen (6/10/11)

Digest of United Kingdom energy statistics (DUKES) Department of Energy and Climate Change
Fuel price report (monthly) Automobile Association
Brent Crude spot prices Energy Information Association


  1. What factors have caused a fall in consumption of petrol?
  2. If you choose to spend a set amount on petrol, what is your price elasticity of demand?
  3. What determines the price elasticity of demand for petrol?
  4. Why has the consumption of diesel fallen less than that of petrol?
  5. Under what circumstances would an increase in tax on road fuel of 3p per litre (as planned for January 2012), result in a decrease in tax revenue? Why would the price elasticity of demand for road fuel have to be significantly greater than 1 (ignoring the minus sign) and not merely above 1 for this to be the case?
  6. Why is it likely that people’s price elasticity of demand for road fuel will become less elastic the more they have cut back on consumption?
  7. Why is the demand for petrol likely to be more elastic with respect to (a) price, and (b) income over the longer term?
  8. To what extent is the demand for road fuel a ‘derived demand’?
  9. To what extent is the fall in the consumption of petrol a reflection of a movement along the demand curve for petrol or a shift in the demand curve? Explain.

Oil prices have been rising in recent weeks. At the beginning of October 2010, the spot price of Brent Crude was $80 per barrel. By December it has passed $90 per barrel. There is some way to go before it gets to the levels of mid-2008, when it peaked at over $140 per barrel (only then to fall rapidly as the world slid into recession, bottoming out at around $34 per barrel at the end of 2008).

Higher oil prices are a worry for governments around the world as they threaten higher inflation and put recovery from recession in jeopardy. You will probably have noticed the higher petrol prices at the pumps. If you spend more on petrol, you will have less to spend on other things.

So why have oil prices risen and are they likely to continue rising? The following articles examine the causes of the recent surge and look ahead to the likely response from OPEC and the path of oil prices next year.

Saudi Arabia to Check Oil Rally in 2011, Merrill’s Blanch Says Bloomberg, Juan Pablo Spinetto (13/12/10)
OPEC Cheating Most Since 2004 as Options Signal Oil Hitting $100 Next Year Bloomberg, Grant Smith and Margot Habiby (13/12/10)
Oil higher after OPEC output rollover; eyes on China Reuters, Christopher Johnson (13/12/10)
Central heating oil price shoots up by 70pc The Telegraph, Harry Wallop (10/12/10)
Speculators driving up price of oil St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kevin G. Hall (12/12/10)
UK petrol prices reach record high BBC News (10/12/10)

Brent cude oil prices (daily) U.S. Energy Information Administration (use the bar at the top to switch between daily, weekly, monthly and annual prices)
Commodity Prices Index Mundi
OPEC Basket Price and other data OPEC


  1. Explain why oil prices have been rising. Use a diagram to illustrate your answer.
  2. How can the concepts of price elasticity of demand, income elasticity of demand and price elasticity of supply help to explain the magnitude of oil price movements?
  3. Examine what is likely to happen to oil prices over the coming months. What are likely to be the most important factors in determining the direction and size of the price movements? Distinguish between demand-side and supply-side effects in your answer.
  4. What are ‘crude futures’? Explain how actions in the futures market are likely affect spot prices.
  5. To what extent can OPEC control oil prices?
  6. If crude oil prices go up by x%, would you expect petrol station prices to go up by approximately x%, or by more than or less than x%? Explain.
  7. Why have central heating oil prices risen by around 70% of over the past three months? What are the implications of your answer for the type of market structure in which central heating oil companies are operating?

The following video and audio podcasts look at resistance by the US oil and coal industries to measures to curb the consumption of oil and coal. Despite the clearly estabilised link between burning fossil fuels and global warming, many in the two industries reject, or at least question, the evidence. After all, it is in their commerical interests to promote the consumption of fossil fuels!

Elsewhere in the USA, interesting scientific developments are taking place to combat global warming. One measure is the production of ‘green oil’ produced from algae. Growing the algae absorbs carbon from the atmosphere.

In few areas are economic arguments so intertwined with political ones. The podcasts look at some of the issues.

Energy policy divides in the US BBC News, David Shukman (2/11/09)
America’s energy policy dilemma BBC News, David Shukman (2/11/09)
Texas takes on green energy BBC News, Roger Harrabin (1/06/09)
Ethical Man: Green revolution in Texas BBC Newsnight, Justin Rowlatt (11/3/09)
Climate plans part of wider battle over American freedom Ethical Man (Justin Rowlatt) blog (BBC) (3/11/09)
Obama urges climate change effort BBC News (3/11/09)
Al Gore on tackling global warming BBC Newsnight (4/11/09)
Al Gore on beating the ‘oil habit’ BBC Today Programme (4/11/09)


  1. To what extent will the free market result in a shift to greener energy sources? Why will any shifts towards greener fuels still not result in the socially or environmentally optimum use of fossil and ‘green’ fuels without government intervention?
  2. What policies could governments adopt to internatlise the externalities involved in burning fossil fuels?
  3. How suitable are cap-and-trade policies (tradable permits) for tackling global warming? What conditions are necessary for such policies to be effective?
  4. Why is tackling climate change politically difficult for (a) individual countries and (b) the world as a whole? How is game theory relevant to your analysis?

Peak oil is an important concept for the oil market. Peak oil is the moment in time at which the maximum extraction rate of oil is reached. From this moment on, production will decline. Basic economics tells us that the oil price will tend to rise from then on (unless demand were to fall faster), but the complexities of the demand and supply for oil dictate that there will not be a simple inverse relationship between the supply of oil and the price. In the articles below George Monbiot interviews Faith Birol, the Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency and the Asia Times article looks at the extent to which world economies rely on oil for energy and other needs. Oil prices may be low at the moment and the market may be awash with excess oil and not enough demand for it, but this is a short term phenomenon; there is little doubt about the long-term direction of the price.

When will the oil run out? Guardian (15/12/08)
Be careful what you wish for Asia Times (15/1/09)


  1. Write a short paragraph explaining what is meant by peak oil.
  2. Using diagrams as appropriate, explain the changes that took place in the oil price in the last six months of 2008.
  3. Analyse the likely impact on the UK economy of arriving at peak oil output in (a) the short term and (b) the long term.
  4. Discuss when peak oil is likely to arrive.