Friday, October 09, 2009

Meme Watch: Peak Demand

To whatever degree the oil price spike of 2007-8 was driven by speculation, the latter was riding on a wave of concern about Peak Oil, which anticipates an imminent decline in maximum global oil production. For the moment, the weak global economy has eased such worries, though they have hardly vanished, as I noted two months ago. Lately, however, conventional notions of Peak Oil are increasingly being challenged by a new meme, or contagious idea, called Peak Demand, which suggests that oil consumption is reaching a plateau from which it will soon decline, mitigating the worst consequences of Peak Oil. Neither of these memes would attract much interest if they weren't supported by a welter of statistics, however selective those might seem to their critics. And just as Peak Oil was much less credible and worrisome before we saw super-giant oil fields like Mexico's Cantarell go into precipitous decline, the logic of Peak Demand would have been much less compelling before US oil demand dropped by nearly 6% last year.

Earlier this week, a friend shared a copy of a report from Deutsche Bank Global Markets Research describing their view of the future oil market shaped by coinciding--and related--peaks in global oil supply and demand. Unfortunately, the report doesn't seem to be available on DB's public website, though it was recently summarized on the Wall St. Journal's Environmental Capital blog. While I spotted several possible weak points in their analysis, they make a strong case that the combination of improved efficiency and the electrification of vehicles will result in the global demand for oil stalling and eventually falling, roughly around the same time many analysts expect global oil supplies to peak.

Perhaps I was predisposed to accept this logic. My presentation on the Alternative Energy panel of the recent IHS Herold Pacesetters Energy Conference included a graph highlighting the ongoing compression of US petroleum gasoline demand between falling motor fuel consumption and rising biofuels supplies, a topic that was subsequently reported in the Journal's "Heard on the Street" column. At that same conference I also heard the Managing Director of CERA's Global Oil Group describe his firm's rigorously researched view of an impending peak in global oil demand. Peak Demand can't easily be dismissed as a "fringe" theory, because it is based on a combination of hard data and thoughtful analysis and forecasting.

My purpose in mentioning Peak Demand now isn't to debate its merits in depth; that's a matter for another day. Rather, on the basis of my conviction that there's at least a reasonable case for such an outcome, I thought I'd spend a moment musing on the consequences of the proliferation of this meme in the marketplace of ideas related to energy. After all, the Peak Demand meme challenges two key pieces of conventional wisdom about oil, one or both of which are central to the rate at which Peak Oil (supply) might be approaching. First, it undermines the notion that once the US economy finds its way back to meaningful growth, oil demand will resume its former trajectory, which had seen gasoline demand growing by 1-2% per year and diesel demand growing at an even faster pace. With a major new emphasis on miles per gallon and the demise of the SUV fad, the fuel economy of the total US car fleet doesn't need to improve by very much each year to outpace our underlying population growth and a modest resurgence in vehicle miles traveled. Secondly, the same dynamic might even hold true for large developing markets, if electric vehicle demand grew rapidly enough, undermining the notion that whatever happens in the US and EU, oil demand from China and India constitute an unstoppable juggernaut.

With spare global oil production capacity effectively used up by 2007, the logic of Peak Oil helped to provide the narrative support for an oil market that ran up from the low $50s to $145 per barrel in the course of 18 months. How different might a future oil price spike be, if instead of a widely-shared view that oil was on the verge of becoming truly scarce--rather than merely expensive--there were an equally widely-held expectation that in the long run that scarcity might become irrelevant as a result of the demand for the commodity gradually unwinding of its own accord? Such dueling memes, together with painful memories of oil's collapse down to $33 last winter, might give some traders pause, before again buying into the notion that $100 oil would soon give way to $200, $300, or $500 per barrel.

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