Without Oil, We'd Be Greece

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- When you run a Greek fiscal policy, you're usually going to get Greek results.

Unless you're the United States, which is blesssed with oil and natural gas, a gift that keeps on giving.

Despite an austere fiscal policy that has cut our annual deficit 45% since the last Bush budget, according to U.S. Government Spending, the U.S. economy has been growing, awash in a sea of oil.

The Department of Energy estimates U.S. oil production rose 21% from 2009-2012, to 2.374 billion barrels. At about $100/barrel, that's $234 billion. Add in natural gas and we're the number one producer again, ahead of both Russia and Saudi Arabia, with the equivalent of 25 million barrels per day expected this year.

Not all that production is getting its price. The "spread" between U.S. and global oil prices, which seemed about to disappear a month ago, is back up to $7/barrel.

The price of natural gas tried to push through $4/mcf early this year, but is now back at $3.50. Compare that with the $11.61/mcf being paid in Europe and you have a huge economic tailwind.

How big is the tailwind? The Energy Department estimates about half of U.S. energy production right now is oil, so that's $12 billion/day being spent here and not being spent elsewhere, a $24 billion/day reversal on our balance of trade. In Texas and North Dakota, they're partying like it's 1979.

Because energy prices remain high, however, we also have a huge incentive to use it wisely. The U.S. economy is less energy-efficient than any of our rivals. You can moan about that, or understand that it means we have more of the cheapest form of renewable energy, efficiency, to exploit than any economic rival.

Efficiency drives sales of cars and trucks, it drives sales of heating systems and refrigerators, and it drives sales of industrial equipment. While the 1970s oil boom was great for Texas but bad for Michigan, this one is also great for Michigan, where Ford ( F) is up 31% and General Motors ( GM) is up over 21% just this year.

That's nothing like the gain in Tesla Motors ( TSLA), which makes electric cars. But while I believe Tesla is in bubble territory, its success shows that there is enormous economic power in replacing gasoline with electricity.

What about other forms of renewable energy? The Department of Energy sees solar energy growing 30% this year, and another 36% next year. It sees slower growth in wind energy but notes that we're producing four times more of it. Total renewable energy consumption in the U.S. should be 8.5 quadrillion BTUs this year, with carbon dioxide levels lower than two years ago.

Computers, mainly big data centers, are now said to be 10% of global electricity use. While the coal industry considers this bullish for them, the fact is that efficiency has been the trend in Information Technology for years.

Cloud data centers like those of Google ( GOOG) focus heavily on energy efficiency and re-use. Low-power chip designs are now the rule, from Intel ( INTC) and ARM Holdings ( ARMH). The consumer market is unplugging from the wall, and the data center is on an energy diet -- all paid for by efficiency.

Efficiency is a huge driver for companies like Cree ( CREE), which makes LED systems. Since LEDs are made with computer chip technology, they're easily controlled by software. No more forgetting to turn off the lights -- they turn themselves off.

If fiscal policy were not such a drag on the economy, driving the deficit down $321 billion/year between 2010 and the year just ended, you might have 6% growth in the economy rather than the 4% being forecast, based on Trading Economics' GDP estimates. That's including the current gains in energy, in efficiency, and in renewable energy.

Take those gains out and we're Greece.

At the time of publication, the author owned 20 shares of GOOG.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Dana Blankenhorn has been a business journalist since 1978, and a tech reporter since 1982. His specialty has been getting to the future ahead of the crowd, then leaving before success arrived. That meant covering the Internet in 1985, e-commerce in 1994, the Internet of Things in 2005, open source in 2005 and, since 2010, renewable energy. He has written for every medium from newspapers and magazines to Web sites, from books to blogs. He still seeks tomorrow from his Craftsman home in Atlanta.

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