Peak Demand or Too Much Oil?

Momentum is building for what is being called the “peak demand” theory—that before too long global oil demand will begin to fall as transportation efficiency, innovations such as electric cars, and government climate change policies will quell the rising consumption of hydrocarbons that has marked the past several decades. What is getting attention is that this sentiment is no longer coming from what could be termed anti-oil interests but is coming from the likes of Shell’s chief executive officer (CEO) and such organizations as the World Energy Council (WEC).

Speaking at an energy conference in Houston in March, Shell CEO Ben van Beurden predicted that world oil demand could peak in the late 2020s because of the growth of renewable energy sources and natural gas. He noted that his company is moving toward a lower-carbon, long-term strategy. Shell recently divested most of its Canadian oil sands position and is increasing its position in natural gas. Last year, it bought the BG Group, which built up its natural gas portfolio. Van Beurden emphasized that the industry must reduce carbon dioxide emissions to help countries meet the recent Paris climate change accord goals.

The WEC has predicted that global energy consumption will begin declining in a little over a decade, and its eighth annual survey of energy executives around the world showed that growth in renewables and energy efficiency is requiring firms to revise their medium- and long-term outlooks.

The peak demand theory undercuts the prevailing industry notion that a rising middle class in developing countries will propel oil demand much higher. Just a few years ago, the industry and many economists were fretting about a shortage of energy supplies to meet this growing consumption. At the same conference where Shell’s CEO spoke, the head of the International Energy Agency (IEA), Fatih Birol, said that global demand is not peaking and in fact will grow by 7.3 million B/D through 2022. He pleaded with oil companies to invest more, otherwise the world would face an oil shortage in the future and the prospect of huge price spikes. He noted that even though sales of electric cars had risen to a record number of more than 1 million, this was still less than 1% of total global auto sales. The trucking, airline, and chemical sectors will continue to drive oil growth, he said.

In general, the oil industry is not good at predicting the future. The oil price decline in the late 1990s, the huge run-up in prices led by surging Chinese and Indian demand in the early 2000s, the strength of the price collapse of the past 2 years, and the resilience of the US shale sector all seemed to catch much of the industry flat-footed. The growth in unconventional production has only made supply/demand forecasts tougher.

The argument might not be so much about peak demand, but about timing. The industry as well as organizations such as the IEA have predicted that global hydrocarbon use would decline this century and that natural gas would be the “bridge to the future” of economies built more around renewable energy sources. The question is whether that will come in 15 years, 30 years, or even longer.

Peak Demand or Too Much Oil?

John Donnelly, JPT Editor

01 May 2017

Volume: 69 | Issue: 5