Can we still expect to see sustained economic recoveries when oil, the world's principal source of energy, is trading in triple digit range?
As I argued several years ago in my book, Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller, triple digit oil prices will redefine our notion of an economic recovery because as soon as the global economy picks up, oil prices will quickly soar to levels that challenge growth.
Last year was a case in point. In the second full year of recovery from as deep a trough as any seen in the post-war period, oil prices once again rose swiftly to levels that, in the past, torpedoed economic growth. Brent Crude, the world oil benchmark, averaged $111 per barrel. This cracked the previous record of an annual average high of $100 in 2008 -- a peak subsequently followed by a huge global recession.
The North American benchmark, West Texas Intermediate (WTI), rose even more, increasing by 20 percent from its 2010 average price of $79. Even with the hefty discount that it traded to world oil prices throughout most of last year (at times over $20 per barrel) WTI still averaged just a shade under triple digit levels at $95/barrel last year.
Of course there are always special factors to explain these price levels: the Libyan revolution, Iran's threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, or an increasingly destabilized Iraq. While all these events certainly pose credible threats to world oil production, they are, at the same time, background noise even if they dominate the front page.
The real story behind triple digit oil prices is not the threat of supply shocks, but the sheer, unrelenting rise in world oil demand. Already closing in on 90 million barrels a day, the quick rebound in world oil consumption to new record highs demonstrates the global economy can't grow without burning greater amounts of oil.
No matter how many rabbits the oil industry can pull out of its hat, be it tar sands from Alberta or shale oil from the Bakkens, supply just can't seem to keep pace -- at least not at the prices most consumers can afford to pay. That is the message that triple digit prices keeps telling us.
If the global economic expansion, troubled as it may be, continues, we will see even higher oil prices in 2012. But what does that say about the sustainability of growth?
And even if there is growth, what is the pace?