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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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Is This A Precursor For Peak Oil Demand?

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The $1 trillion sovereign wealth fund of Norway may sell off all of its shares in oil producers.

The move is a shot across the bow for the oil industry. A $1 trillion fund, built on oil itself, now sees the future of oil as too risky.

Norway’s sovereign wealth fund is not getting out of the oil business entirely. The government has only recommended exiting oil and gas exploration and production companies (i.e., upstream producers). The reason why the fund wants to pursue divestment is that it views the long-term oil market as volatile, unpredictable, and at this point, vulnerable to permanently low prices. “The goal is to make our collective wealth less vulnerable to a lasting fall in oil prices,” Norway’s finance minister, Siv Jensen, said. The fund currently holds about $37 billion in oil and gas stocks.

Based on that logic, the government wants to avoid the exposure to producers, since they will be the companies most impacted by changes in oil prices.

But the divestment is also one of the most powerful symbols yet regarding the potential for peak oil demand. The notion of permanently low oil prices is predicated on a peak and decline in consumption. And if a $1 trillion sovereign wealth fund views oil as inherently risky going forward, other investors could begin to fret. It’s worth noting that oil and gas stocks fell immediately after the announcement. 

On the other hand, the selloff could also be viewed in the narrow interests of Norway itself. The sovereign wealth fund was built by oil revenues, so the divestment is a bit ironic. Critics might point out that it is a bit rich for a country that has been, and still is, funded by oil revenues to be taking such a stand on the future of the oil business.

But that misses the point. Precisely because Norway’s government still sources a lot of its revenue from oil is also why it wants to diversify. The Norwegian government is not making a moral claim about climate change, or exiting oil stocks for reasons of symbolism, but simply to spread risk. A future scenario in which oil prices stay low, potentially on a permanent basis, would upend the Norwegian government’s revenue base. To have both the budget and the sovereign wealth fund vulnerable to such a scenario – one that is completely feasible – would be reckless.

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“The oil business will be a major and important industry in Norway for many years to come. The government’s income from the [continental] shelf basically follows the profitability of upstream companies. Therefore this is about spreading the risk,” finance minister Siv Jensen said, according to the FT.

The sovereign wealth fund has already exited from coal stocks, which, at this point, is a no-brainer given the crisis in that industry. Oil could be next. The new recommendations say that the fund can still invest in integrated oil companies, and those that have their hands in renewable energy.

In related news, Morgan Stanley says that China’s oil demand could reach a peak as soon as 2025, driven by high-speed rail and a rapid transition to electric vehicles. And as China goes, so goes the oil market. China has accounted for more than a third of the annual growth in oil demand for most of this 21st century. A peak in Chinese oil demand likely signals a coming peak in overall oil demand.

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But the forecast is sooner than the market consensus. While there is no shortage of peak demand forecasts – and they run the gamut – many center on or around 2030. Some are sooner and many more are later, but 2030 is kind of the unofficial consensus. The Morgan Stanley prediction, then, has raised some eyebrows.

“China will no longer be the growth driver of global crude demand,” Andy Meng wrote in the report. “We believe the refiners and petroleum stations are the largest potential losers, while the battery companies are likely to become the key winners.”

China is already the world’s largest market for electric vehicles, and it is expected to grow rapidly in the years ahead. EV sales in China have already surpassed 6 percent, and new government incentives could accelerate the transition.

The last few months of data are even more shocking. Overall car sales in China are contracting, while EV sales are rising quickly, on track for around 60 percent growth rate this year. It’s a little early to declare the peak of the internal-combustion engine in China, but if that trend continues, such a reality is not far away. In other words, it’s not hard to imagine peak oil demand in China in the near future.

If China does reach a peak in demand, then many more investors may want to divest their assets from the oil industry.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh Salameh on March 10 2019 said:
    The decision by Norway’s sovereign wealth fund to divest of $37 billion worth of its oil and gas stocks is based on a faulty assumption of permanently declining oil prices resulting from an approaching peak oil demand.

    The fund’s decision is motivated by an attempt to burnish its environmental credentials by cosying up to the environmental lobby and is thus receiving biased environmental rather than sound financial advice.

    If Norway’s sovereign fund was advised by oil experts like me rather than being influenced by the environmental lobby, it would have realized that there will never be a post-oil era or a peak oil demand throughout the 21st century and far beyond and I will explain why.

    There could never be a post-oil era because it is very doubtful that an alternative as versatile and practicable as oil, particularly in transport, could totally replace oil in the next 100 years and beyond. What will change is some aspects of the multi-uses of oil in transport, electricity generation and water desalination which will eventually be mostly powered by solar energy. However, oil will continue to be used extensively in the global petrochemical industry and other industries and outlets from pharmaceuticals to plastics, aviation and computers to agriculture which can’t continue to feed 8 billion people without oil and also in transport in most of the developing countries. Oil will continue to reign supreme throughout the 21st century and far beyond.

    There will never be a peak oil demand either. Global oil demand will never peak throughout the 21st century and far beyond because electric vehicles (EVs) will never be able to replace oil in global transport. They will only decelerate the growth of global demand for oil. Even the introduction of 350 million EVs by 2040 which is an impossibility will only displace 9% of the oil used in global transport or 11 million barrels of oil a day (mbd) out of 120 mbd used by then.

    It is a valid economic principle that oil producers and investors should always aim to maximize the return on their assets and investments respectively. If there will be neither a post-oil era nor a peak oil demand, it follows that investors will look for opportunities in the most profitable outlets in the world. The global oil industry is and will continue to be the most profitable industry for the foreseeable future. It also follows that OPEC will continue to be in a position not only to play a major role in determining the oil price but also to stabilize the global oil market and prices as well.

    Through its history oil has experienced a lot of volatility which emanates from its strategic importance and the various economic and geopolitical pressures to which it is subjected at any point in time. But for the fund to give an excuse of trying to make itself less vulnerable to permanent drop in oil prices is not based on good financial and economic advice. Furthermore, it shows an utter misunderstanding of the economics of oil. Oil is not in permanent drop and never will be. While oil prices might dip every now and then, they always rise up like the phoenix as is happening now.

    The Fund should reconsider its decision and seek wider advice from international oil experts.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Brett Blaikie on March 11 2019 said:
    I see it as a political move. Eschatological propaganda seems to have really surged since Katowice, a reaction to the yellow vest movement as much as anything. Unless they know some new energy source nobody else knows there is no technical reason - however I did not hear it was "producers" but rather exploration and development which makes sense if you're looking to diversify and your timeline is ten to twenty years. However I've seen no estimates showing hydrocarbon demand tapering off until world population tapers off in 2060.
  • James Hilden-Minton on March 11 2019 said:
    Great article. Nick gets it. Diesel has likely already peaked in China, and gasoline looks to peak by 2025. That really does not leave much demand growth for a barrel once gasoline and diesel are both in decline. China will be in a position to manufacture and export EVs and batteries just like they do with PV panels. As oil peaks in China, it is really game over for global demand growth.

    Another problem with China oil use peaking is that it has a lot of refinery capacity. So expect China to be a strong net exporter of refinery products too. Globally, refiners could suffer margin compression as China increasing dumps more gasoline and diesel into export markets.
  • Jim Miceli on March 13 2019 said:
    Norway should keep it's royal jewels and top the shelf with Gold Bullion and I'd definitely corner the market with Diamonds. Diamonds are very very precious. If a Diamond Buyer is buying 5 star 4 c he investing. Look at ETSY. Boomtown USA is comin folks so figure on how you want to invest and capitalize on what the majority of consumers want in their treasure chest.
  • Lee James on March 14 2019 said:
    I sense change in the air, with less of a whiff of petroleum. Happiness used to be found in how much oil we can burn. Today, to the extent possible, the greater good is framed by how much oil we can leave in the ground.

    Of course, it's a considerable challenge to leave oil in the ground. But it's a challenge that we increasingly accept.
  • allister lehan on March 20 2019 said:
    Great Things come with change - think of all the scientific gains we made with the scientific and agricultural revolutions...we only do this usually when there is a change imposed on us by circumstance - like Peak Oil. We will develop new and more improved technology in the field of energy - an exciting time really. Geopolitics will change as well - maybe we can actually be Friends with Russia / China / Cuba / Iran etc...

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