At the outset of the 2014 oil collapse, slacking oil demand growth was often cited as a major contributor to the sharp decline in oil prices. In September 2014, the International Energy Agency (IEA) stated “The recent slowdown in demand growth is nothing short of remarkable”. The IEA doubled down and expanded on its weak demand thesis in its Medium-Term Oil Outlook report issued in February 2015:
The global economy, reshaped by the information technology revolution, has generally become less fuel intensive. Concerns over climate change are recasting energy policies. And the globalisation of the natural gas market, coupled with steep reductions in the cost and availability of renewable energy, are causing oil to face a level of inter-fuel competition that would have seemed unfathomable a few years ago …. the recent price decline is expected to have only a marginal impact on global demand growth for the remainder of the decade. Projections of oil-demand growth have been revised downwards, rather than upwards, since the price drop, in line with IMF forecasts of underlying economic growth; demand growth is expected to slow markedly, to 1.1 mb/d per annum over the next six years, from the “normal” pace of expansion exhibited prior to the financial crisis of 2008-2009.
The IEA was not alone, headlines and articles in the same vein were prevalent in the early innings of the oil price collapse:
World Oil Demand: And Then There Was None
Falling Demand for Oil Is the Biggest Concern for Saudis
Oil's "Surprise" Collapse: It's The Demand, Stupid
This narrative made sense, the rise of EVs spearheaded by Tesla, increasingly stringent environmental policies, sluggish global economy and persistently high oil prices finally did oil in, except for a minor fact, none of these stories were true. After the dust settled and the IEA did its tally of oil demand, we notice that no actual collapse in oil demand has taken place, if anything, oil demand growth has accelerated materially since the crisis:
As can be seen from the table above, global oil and NGLs demand has been growing at a steady average annual rate of 1.15 million barrels prior to the crisis, and has accelerated since to 1.8 million barrels per year, with 2016 still subject to upward revisions. This acceleration in demand was predictable as per findings of demand elasticity studies available at the time. In April 2011, the International Monetary Fund published a 20-year oil price elasticity study, which concluded that a 10 percent increase (or decrease) in oil prices yields a 0.019 percent change in oil consumption over the short term, and 0.072 percent change over the long term.
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Between 2011 and 2014 Brent oil prices averaged $107 per barrel, following the price collapse the average declined to $48 per barrel for 2015 and 2016, or 56 percent decline. Related: Saudi King Goes East In Search Of Friends And Cash
Applying this price decline to IMF findings would argue for a 1 percent acceleration in oil demand growth in 2015 and 2016 vs. the demand growth average prior to the crisis. This is exactly what happened. If we revert back to the historic oil demand growth table, we notice that demand growth has indeed accelerated in 2015 by about one percentage point to 2.15 percent as compared to 1.27 percent before the crisis. The 2016 demand growth average has slowed down to 1.7 percent growth; however, 2016 demand data is still preliminary and will likely be revised higher as the IEA is notorious for underestimating historic demand growth and has a history of substantial upward revisions. In addition, the fact that global GDP growth in 2016 was the slowest since the financial crisis, was a factor that could have weighted on 2016 demand to some extent.
Going forward, the IMF study argues for an acceleration in oil demand growth over the long term should prices remain low, and with shale oil potentially capping oil prices in the $60 range, the impact of this oil collapse on oil demand is likely to be sustained for an extended period of time. The fact that oil demand accelerates with time in a low oil price environment is consistent with the fact that personal and industrial users take time to fully adjust for a lower oil price environment. Whether upgrading to a bigger car, or moving further way from the city, or constructing a new petrochemical plant, these decisions take time before they flow into oil demand statistics.
What Electric Cars?
One of the most powerful arguments against sustained oil demand growth is the ongoing and expected growth in the electric car market, a trend driven by two powerful forces: innovation and policy support. The former remains in full force; however policy support is questionable in the Trump era (34 percent of the global EV car fleet is in the U.S.). The Paris climate deal aims to have 100 million electric cars on the road by 2030 or roughly 6.6 percent of the expected car fleet in the world by then, such target equates to a 100-fold increase in the global EVs stock. These numbers sound impressive except for the fact that they have a negligible impact on global oil demand.
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According to BP’s long term energy outlook, the introduction of 100m electric cars on the road by 2035 will only reduce global oil demand growth by 1.2 million barrels. This is a miniscule number when applied over the entire forecast period. This is not to mention achieving the 100 million EV cars goal by the 2030s is highly uncertain, with both the U.S. and China reducing and eliminating EV subsidies, the former due to a forthcoming change of policy and the latter due to rampant green subsidy fraud, this goal is ever less certain. It’s worth noting that the Obama administration invested heavily since 2009 to achieve a goal of 1 million electric cars on U.S. roads by 2015, and ended up meeting only 40 percent of this target (and this is if we include 200,000 Plug in Hybrids).
In a nutshell. EVs are a red herring. By far the most important variable on passenger cars oil demand is changes in fuel efficiency standards. In this area, the United States is a clear laggard:
As can be seen from the above, passenger cars fuel consumption in the United States and Canada is materially higher than the average consumption in other developed markets such as Europe and OECD Asia. Thus, the scope of for fuel efficiency improvement is the largest in North America. The extent of this fuel efficiency improvement is now in question in light of the election of Donald Trump. A stalling or a reversal in U.S. fuel (CAFE) standards could theoretically eliminate the totality of the global fuel savings gained by the introduction of 100 million electric cars.
Reversal or slowdown in car fuel efficiency is not just a potential U.S. phenomenon. Since the 1990s Europe, doubled down on diesel cars due to their 15 percent to 30 percent better fuel millage vs. gasoline cars. The support for diesel cars ranged from lowering taxes on diesel to preferential tax treatment. Favoring diesel over gasoline lead to diesel cars in Europe increasing their market share from 10 percent of the car fleet in the mid-90s to 55 percent at their peak in 2012. This trend has changed after the Volkswagen scandal, as it became evident that diesel cars are more polluting. The pro-diesel policy was abandoned in favor of EVs and hybrid cars. However, despite the emerging policy support for EVs, less polluting and less efficient gasoline cars stand to gain in market share in Europe at the expense of diesel over the medium term, which in turn has an impact on the European car fleet efficiency.
Outside of EVs and fuel standards, what’s driving oil demand in the passenger car sector is the sheer number of passenger cars set to hit the road over the next 20 years, with the total car fleet growing from 1B cars today to 2B cars by 2040:
The majority of the projected car ownership increase will take place in the developing world where car ownership per capita remains substantially below that of the OECD countries. 80 percent of the world population still lives outside of the OECD countries.
It’s not all about cars
What’s often forgotten in the discussion about oil demand is that passenger cars present only 20 percent of global oil demand:
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Analyzing oil demand by focusing solely on 20 percent of the market is bound to yield misleading results. Oil demand is driven by a myriad of structural factors most of which are tied to industrialization, global commerce, improving living standards and marine, air and truck transport. These forces are not subject to speculation on EV penetration. Statoil, by far the most conservative forecaster of future oil demand and the oil major most bullish on EV penetration (17 percent of the global car fleet by 2030) still expects oil demand to reach 106 million by 2030. Specifically referring to non-transport oil demand, Statoil states:
Given the outlook of decelerating oil demand growth in the transport sector, the non-energy sector, where petro-chemicals represent the lion’s share, becomes the most rapid growing sector for oil. Demand growth for petrochemical products is expected to remain high and the potential for energy efficiency is relatively limited. Therefore, demand for petrochemical feedstock rises steadily, from 15 mbd in 2015 to about 24-27 mbd by 2040, dependent on the scenario. Related: Will Tesla’s $2.6 Billion SolarCity Gamble Pay Off?
As a matter of fact, just recently the Asian Development Bank issued a report urging Asian nations to double infrastructure spending to $1.7 trillion per year, for a total of $26 trillion by 2030. Such recommendation if followed, will have a far more material impact on oil demand in the coming years than any new EV model companies such as Tesla may bring to the market.
Low levels of car ownership, and lagging industrialization continue to place per capita oil consumption in Non-OECD countries far below those in the OECD:
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(Source: World Oil and Gas Review)
With the majority of the world population still residing in non-OECD countries, and the remaining massive gap in per capita oil consumption in the OECD (13.19 barrels) vs. Non-OECD (2.92 barrels), we can easily see a path for much higher demand for many years to come. As a matter of fact, despite a 2.2 barrels decline in OECD per capita oil consumption from 2000 to 2015, global oil demand still increased from 77 million barrels in 2000 to 95 million barrels in 2015. This can be traced to the 0.8 barrels increase in non-OECD per capita consumption, a powerful testament to the powerful impact non-OECD oil demand growth can have on global oil demand.
Oil investors, executives and forecasters have been gun shy in their oil demand projections, the constant barrage of negative oil headlines and the politically sensitive nature of being disposed favorably toward oil after years of green indoctrination has skewed the debate. A friend of mine who attended the International Petroleum Week event in London reported a sense of gloom and lack of confidence about future oil demand by the people who are supposed to insure sufficient investments to insure adequate oil supply. Yet, despite the rampant skepticism reality says otherwise, demand growth over the last two years has been the best since the mid-2000s (barring the 2010 oil demand rebound from the financial crisis). In the United States, the Trump administration is adopting a pro-fossil fuel policy, while considering an ambitious infrastructure and tax plan that could accelerate U.S. growth to 3 percent growth over the coming years. Meanwhile, Europe is experiencing a growth renaissance spurred by an easy monetary policy and low euro. China is tugging along despite yearly predictions of impeding economic collapse, and India continue to plow ahead under a determined Modi leadership. Furthermore, the recent price rebound in a number of commodities should have a favourable impact on the economy of commodity exporters such as Brazil and South Africa. Besides a more bullish global GDP outlook, the oil industry itself is a large consumer of oil due to the energy intensive nature of developing unconventional oil resources. A rebound in oil prices to the $60s range, should help spur oil demand in oil producing countries and regions.
Oil at $60-$70 could prove to be a sort of a Goldilocks price where both demand and supply find a healthy balance, a rise in prices much above these levels could reverse some of the positive demand drivers discussed in this article, and could prove self-defeating for the long-term health of the oil industry. This is where shale oil could play a constructive role in keeping the market well supplied and prices reasonable in the face of solid demand growth. Many view shale oil as an unwelcome guest on the global oil scene. Yet, it’s the arrival of shale oil, and the resulting moderation in oil prices that’s at the core of this rejuvenated global oil demand growth.
According to the IEA data, in the last two years, OECD oil demand switched from an average annual decline of 300,000 barrels to 450,000 barrels growth. The dynamics governing U.S. oil demand in particular might prove sufficient for OECD oil demand growth to maintain its positive trajectory over the next several years. Healthy OECD oil demand combined with structural oil demand growth of 1.2 million to 1.5 million in non-OECD countries could generate 5 million barrels in additional oil demand between 2018-2020, this is on top of the 5 million barrels or so in demand growth witnessed since the outset of the oil crisis. To borrow a line from the IEA, such buoyant growth would have seemed unfathomable a few years ago.
By Nawar Alsaadi for Oilprice.com
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