Peak Oil Demand Is A Slow-Motion Train Wreck


By Nick Cunningham 

Will oil demand peak within five years? 15 years? Or not until 2040 or 2050?

The precise date at which oil demand hits a high point and then enters into decline has been the subject of much debate, and a topic that has attracted a lot of interest just in the last few years. Consumption levels in some parts of the world have already begun to stagnate, and more and more automakers have begun to ratchet up their plans for electric vehicles.

But the exact date the world will hit peak demand kind of misses the whole point, argues a new report, which is notable since it is coauthored by BP’s chief economist Spencer Dale, along with Bassam Fattouh, the director of The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.

They argue that the focus shouldn’t be on the date at which oil demand peaks, but rather the fact that the peak is coming at all. “The significance of peak oil is that it signals a shift from an age of perceived scarcity to an age of abundance,” they wrote. In other words, oil won’t be on the only game in town when it comes to fueling the global transportation system, which will have far-reaching consequences for oil producers and consumers alike.

The exact date is unknowable, and in any event, the year in which the world does hit peak consumption won’t result in some abrupt “discontinuity of behavior,” the report argues. Demand growth will slow and then decline, but probably won’t fall off a cliff. So, the exact date of peak oil demand is “not particularly interesting.”

Nevertheless, the implications of a looming peak in oil consumption are massive. Without an economic transformation, or at least serious diversification, oil-producing nations that depend on oil revenues for both economic growth and to finance public spending, face an uncertain future.

And slowing demand growth is occurring at a time when supply is less of a concern than it used to be, in large part because new drilling technologies have led to a wave of supply from shale. “The world isn’t going to run out of oil. Rather, it seems increasingly likely that significant amounts of recoverable oil will never be extracted,” the authors wrote.

One of the more intriguing conclusions from the report is that this new “age of abundance” could alter behavior from oil producers. In the past, some countries (notably OPEC members) restrained output, husbanding resources for the future, betting that scarcity would increase the value of their holdings over time. “A high reserves-to-production ratio — implying a country could continue producing oil at the same rate for 80, 90, 100+ years — was a sign of both strength and intergenerational fairness,” the report said.

However, looking forward, if a peak in demand looms just over the horizon, oil producers could rush to maximize their production in order to get as much value for their reserves while they can. “Better to have money in the bank than oil in the ground.”

To complicate matters further, maximizing production to fight for market share would require hundreds of billions of dollars of investment. For instance, Rystad Energy predicts upstream spending will stand at $510 billion in 2018 (which is sharply lower than in years past). Huge sums will be required even just to maintain current levels of production.

That creates another problem. As the FT notes, extending the life of oil fields, let alone investing in new ones, will require marshalling such large volumes of capital, but that might be met with skepticism from wary investors when demand begins to peak. “When that shift occurs, from a growing industry to one in decline, you change investors’ perception,” Jason Bordoff at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, told the FT. It will be difficult to attract investment to a shrinking industry, particularly if margins continued to get squeezed. In In that sense, the timing of peak oil demand does in fact matter.

Either way, peak demand should be an alarming prospect for OPEC, Russia, the oil majors — basically any and all oil producers who will find themselves fighting more aggressively for a shrinking pie. “Faced with the possibility that significant amounts of recoverable oil may never be extracted, low-cost producers have a strong incentive to use their comparative advantage to squeeze out high-cost producers and gain market share — just as with any other competitive market,” Dale and Fattouh wrote.  

Oil producers will need to adapt to a “higher volume, lower price” environment. For consumers, however, the shift will bring benefits, including more options and cheaper energy.


At the country level, this is scary stuff. Many oil producers have hefty spending requirements to satisfy their populaces, including for healthcare, housing, employment, etc. Ample global oil supply for the foreseeable future, combined with an eventual peak in demand, threatens persistent fiscal deficits and some hard choices.

Saudi Arabia has offered up its Vision 2030, which the report by Dale and Fattouh say is probably “the most prominent example of a major oil producer responding to the changing environment,” but economic transformations are incredibly difficult and would conceivably take decades to pull off.

It’s hard to imagine countries that depend on oil for more than 90 percent of their export revenue adapting well — it’s a slow-motion train wreck. Dale and Fattouh say it may require “an eventual adjustment in living standards,” which is a rather diplomatic way of putting it.


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