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Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has also appeared in The Christian Science…

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What Happens When Essential Commodities Become Luxuries?

It has now become more fashionable to talk about shortages. Computer chips have been in shortage and then in glut in the last few years. Natural gas was acutely in shortage in Europe after the war in Ukraine and pipeline sabotage brought supplies from Russia down to a trickle. Then, heroic efforts at conservation and in obtaining liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipments to Europe led to a dramatic reduction in price. But last week just the potential for labor strikes among LNG workers in Australia, a major LNG exporter, sent the European price spiking again.

The world seemed so well supplied with everything in the previous decade that the shortages of this decade seem shocking to those with memories that do not extend further back than 2010.

But in what is actually recent memory, we have examples. It was the mid-2000s that brought us spiking food prices. Now they are rising again. It also brought us the highest price ever for a barrel of oil. Now oil prices are elevated again. Metals prices rose. Now they are again.

The general view is that shortages and high prices are the cure for shortages and high prices. And, there is some truth in that because high prices incentivize more people to produce more of the stuff that carries a high price. But when prices are rising in general it is difficult for miners, growers and manufacturers to address prices everywhere at once. There is only so much capital for investment. That is why eras of rising prices can go on for some time before they are resolved.

But what if some critical resources won't yield to the logic of modern economics? What if that logic only works in a world of growing extraction of cheap resources? What if the price of extracting ever leaner grades of metals, harvesting ever more grains and fiber from farm fields losing topsoil that is already saturated with as much fertilizer as plants can absorb, pumping ever more water from falling water tables and dwindling streams and reservoirs—what if we simply cannot afford all this on a wide scale? The answer is that extraction somewhere will fail to keep pace with what people would otherwise demand, and then standards of living would fall.

I return to helium as a harbinger of what is unfolding. Back in 2009 I suggested that the world was heading toward an acute helium shortage. Granted, the world helium market was dominated at the time by the U.S. government and its Federal Helium Program which gathered the richest sources of helium in the world. The government decided in the 1920s that helium was such a critical resource that it would manage it for national security reasons. (For why it's hard to find substitutes for helium see my 2009 piece.) Then in 1996 the U.S. Congress decided the federal government should get out of the helium business and let the marketplace set prices and seek out new supplies.

The process of exiting the helium market is near completion. The government has stopped selling helium. Now, the supposed rush is on among private companies to find and produce the helium the world needs. There are companies now doing that.

Prices of helium are spiking and helium is getting harder to secure in the meantime. The problem is so acute that scientists who need helium for all kinds of research are having a hard time getting it. And some are calling for the U.S. government to remain in the helium business in order to assure supplies are available for research facilities including its own.

Another example of an emerging pattern is the rice market. In many countries, the supplies of basic foodstuffs are managed by governments to help avoid food shortages. In Asia rice prices are at or near all time highs. India, the world's largest rice exporter, has already instituted some restrictions on the export of rice. The fear is that other countries will follow. The reason is simple: There is no better way to insure that the ruling party will be thrown out of office than food shortages. Keeping more food at home keeps prices down.

Part of the reason for rice's production woes is a strong El Nino negatively affecting weather for Asian growers. And the strong El Nino is starting when global ocean temperatures are already high, meaning the effect of the El Nino will be greatly enhanced by climate change compared to previous decades.

Helium and rice are two example of shortages that cannot simply be addressed by "the market." (I put "the market" in quotes because there are very few true free markets. Most markets are carefully managed by the largest players.) A combination of government and private action is being coordinated for goals that take social priorities into account as is the case with rice or as is being requested in the case of helium.

Focusing on profitability alone will lead to rampant, accelerated pressures on resources—which is how we got to where we are today. More of the same won't solve the long-term problems related to limits on key resources.

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By Kurt Cobb via Resource Insights

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