Thursday, February 19, 2009

Demand Rebound

For a long time, it appeared as though US gasoline consumption was impervious to increasing prices. Last year we learned again that the price elasticity of gasoline demand, while low, is not zero, as the combination of $4 prices and a weakening economy triggered a change in America's driving habits, turning the vehicle miles traveled and fuel use trends negative for the first time in years. However, price elasticity works in both directions. Gas prices are now not only lower than their average for all of 2008; despite recent increases this week's average pump price of $1.96 per gallon remains cheaper than the same-month comparisons for 2006 and 2007, as well. This was bound to have an effect on demand, and the API statistics for January reflect the first year-on-year increase in monthly gasoline consumption since 2007. Even if this reversal is ultimately overwhelmed by the contraction of the economy, it provides one piece of evidence that structural demand might not have changed as much as some might like to believe. That has implications for future oil demand and prices, once the hoped-for economic recovery begins, and for what consumers should be factoring into their decisions.

Other than for gasoline, the API stats contained few surprises. Total petroleum product demand was down 3.1% from last January, on the back of big declines in diesel, heating oil, and jet fuel consumption--sure signs of the weakness of the economy. US oil production ticked up slightly, reflecting the lagged benefits of all the investment that has gone into the sector since prices started rising. Nor should the gasoline figures have startled anyone, since the Department of Energy's weekly estimates have been pointing in this direction for some time, as noted recently in the excellent R-Squared Energy Blog. Surprising or not, January's demand blip should put an end to wishful thinking about permanently altered lifestyles and consumption patterns.

What does this mean for government policy and for consumers? It points to a return to higher oil prices within a relatively short time after the economy resumes growing, and everything that goes with them, including high gas prices that will strain household budgets, just as they would be getting back into balance, and a bigger oil-import bill for the country, putting pressure on the trade deficit, the dollar, and our ability to finance the vast debt we are accumulating to combat the recession and financial crisis. Nor can we rely on big improvements in vehicle fuel economy to keep demand low. New cars built to meet higher corporate average fuel economy standards will feed into our fleet of 245 million cars and light trucks slowly, at best, particularly if Chrysler's pessimistic forecast of sales at the 10 million car/year level for the next four years proves correct.

That doesn't mean we should wait passively for the next oil price spike. If we want to keep oil imports as low as they are now, we'll need to produce more of it ourselves, because until there are millions of plug-in cars on the road, all those renewable energy projects that the stimulus bill should help advance will have no effect on our oil use. That means offshore drilling, like it or not. On a personal level, if you're buying a car, factor in the likelihood that gas won't remain at $2/gal. for more than a year or two. If you're taking advantage of the slump in housing prices to buy a home, minimize its distance from your workplace, rather than trading more miles for more square feet, as many Americans did for the last decade--and remember that every extra square foot will cost more to heat and cool in the future, too. In short, enjoy the near-term benefit of today's low prices, but act on the assumption they will go back up, again.

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