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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is a freelance writer on oil and gas, renewable energy, climate change, energy policy and geopolitics. He is based in Pittsburgh, PA.

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The Global Oil Demand Driver That Is Being Ignored



When looking at oil demand, oil market analysts focus overwhelmingly on passenger vehicles. One of the hottest debates today is over the prospect of peak oil demand: whether or not electric vehicles along with general trends towards more fuel efficiency will ultimately lead to a peak and decline of total oil demand worldwide. No doubt the upcoming release of Tesla’s Model 3 will spark more than a few columns on how it could be the beginning of the end for oil.

But the conversation often overlooks the role that heavy trucks and freight play in driving demand. The International Energy Agency just published a report arguing that the world needs to get a handle on fuel efficiency for freight, or else oil demand will continue to rise, regardless of how many Tesla’s are on the road.

Freight transit is crucial for economic growth, and indeed, it tends to be correlated with GDP. The IEA says that only four countries – Canada, the U.S., China and Japan – have fuel efficiency standards for heavy trucks, one-tenth of the 40 countries that have rules for passenger vehicles.

“For far too long there has been a lack of policy focus on truck fuel efficiency. Given they are now the dominant driver of global oil demand, the issue can no longer be ignored if we are to meet our energy and environmental objectives” Dr. Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director, said in a press release.

Since 2000, heavy trucks have accounted for 40 percent of the total growth in oil demand, on par with the share for passenger vehicles. Trucks burn about 17 million barrels of oil per day (mb/d), or about one-fifth of total global demand.

Crucially, demand is still growing…rapidly. By 2040, road freight will be responsible for 5 mb/d of demand growth, or about 40 percent of total additional demand over that timeframe. If that occurs, any chance at putting a dent in global greenhouse gas emissions would be significantly undercut by the large increase in emissions from trucking.

Related: Is The Polish Shale Gas Industry Set For A Comeback?

Even in industrialized countries like the U.S. and Europe, where oil consumption in passenger vehicles has plateaued, the freight sector is still seeing increasing demand. But most of the growth will come from China and India, where 90 percent of the additional barrels for freight will be consumed.

The IEA urges governments to make progress on restraining demand growth. It cites three possible areas for improvement. The first area is logistics and operations, which means using things like GPS to “optimize truck routing,” improve supply chain efficiencies so that trucks are carrying heavier loads and making fewer empty trips. Big Data, the “internet of things,” and autonomous trucks fall into this category.

Second, there is plenty of room for hardware improvements. The IEA says that the trucking fleet could use aerodynamic retrofits to reduce drag. Lighter materials, better engines, transmissions and drivetrains can all boost fuel economy. There is also potential for hybrid and even zero-emissions trucks.

Third, there could be a large payoff from the use of alternative fuels, which encompasses biofuels, natural gas, electricity and even hydrogen.

If the sector adopts a range of these improvements, the IEA says it is possible to reduce oil demand by nearly 16 mb/d by 2050, relative to a business-as-usual scenario.

Some areas will be much more difficult to achieve than others, but the IEA says that governments need to focus on several areas: Fuel economy standards; support for the improved use of data for supply chain management; and policies to promote alternative fuels, including R&D, market uptake and refueling infrastructure.

The conclusion from the report is that while everyone is (rightly) focused on passenger vehicles, where indeed, a lot of progress is being made, there is scant attention to freight transit.

The prospects of peak oil demand, at least for light-duty vehicles, is within reach. But unless there is an equivalent campaign for heavy-duty vehicles, crude oil demand could continue to grow for several more decades. That would be just fine for the oil industry, but for governments trying to reduce their oil consumption and make headway on climate change, the policy approach to the transportation sector needs to be much more comprehensive.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com


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  • Jhm on July 04 2017 said:
    Actually, diesel consumption is in decline, falling 128 kb/d in 2016 over prior year. Leading the pack in reducing consumption is China, falling 232 kb/d.

    China added 116k electric buses in 2016, enough to reduce demand by 72kb/d. But electric buses are easily doubling annually for several more years globally. Thus, reaching an offset of 560 kb/d in 2019. The ten-year growth of diesel consumption globally is about 450 kb/d each year. Thus, by 2019 heavy EVs alone will suffice to reduce demand.

    Stand by for Tesla to unveil their HD electric Semi in September. This will be full range, heavy duty and higher torque than diesel semis.

    Of course, solar and batteries are minimizing the use of diesel generators for power.

    So we are quite near peak demand for diesel. Perhaps 2015 at 27.6 mb/d will stand as the peak. 2017 may be the last best for a higher peak.
  • Mark Carter on July 04 2017 said:
    "Tesla Semi: everything we know about Tesla’s upcoming all-electric truck"

    Trucks will transition faster than cars, the economics are overwhelming better for EV trucks.

    Roughly 1/4 the per-mile cost and vastly lower maintenance costs outweigh the higher initial capital cost. And the Tesla Semi will include autopilot, and it will drive like a sportscar.
  • Bill Simpson on July 05 2017 said:
    MythBusters did an experiment which showed about a 10% improvement in fuel economy by covering a car with big plastic dimples held on by clay. Those 2 men are smart. So they ran several test runs, to be sure they hadn't screwed up. You could see they were both quite surprised that, like a golf ball, the plastic hemispheres lowered the air resistance. They have done all kinds of fuel economy myth testing.
    You wouldn't want it on a car, because it looked terrible. But stamping dimples into the sides and roof of an 18 wheeler and trailer might save thousands of gallons of diesel fuel over the life of the vehicle. You have to wonder if it would help a train. On an airliner it would probably add too much weight, with the extra metal you would need.
    They made sure the car weighed the same on both sets of runs.
    And we are nowhere near peak oil demand, unless the $272,000,000,000,000 global debt bubble bursts.
  • Josh Gregner on July 05 2017 said:
    I don't think it is being ignored. More and more fleet users do care about their fleet emissions and are taking corrective actions. We know that Tesla is working on a Class 8 Semi and we know that others are trying to do the same.

    We know that some fleet customers were suing VW since they were promised clean diesel fleet.

    And lastly, we know that some fleet customers are taking matters into their own hands: German Postal Services is developing their own electric delivery vans and already has 3000 of them in daily use.

    So yes, commercial trucks are a driver of oil demand right now. But that will not last until 2040. In fact, I think that commercial trucks will be changed quicker as many cars: if EVs are cheaper they will be used. And they get cheaper all the time.
  • paeng on July 06 2017 said:
    Oil is needed to manufacture and ship electric vehicles, together with many other components used for alternative sources of energy.
  • CapitalistRoader on July 06 2017 said:
    According to a 2010 Pew study "Freight Transportation", freight shipped by truck uses about ten times as much energy, and emits far more greenhouse gases, per ton-mile than freight shipped by rail. The US is the leader in shipping freight by train instead of trucks, 43 percent goes by rail and only 30 percent by road, compared to EU-27 where only 10 percent goes by rail vs. 46 percent by road.

    People are light in weight compared to freight and as such it makes much more sense to utilize more fuel efficient trains to carry freight instead of people. Perhaps Europe can make an effort to catch up to the US in that respect, which would save huge amounts of oil from being burned.

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