It is no exaggeration to say the oil industry faces its gravest crisis of the past 100 years. As western economies go into hibernation, hoping to snuff out the first wave of coronavirus through lockdowns and isolation, the industry is facing up to the fact that fuel demand is going to fall faster than ever before. Already prices have roughly halved since the start of this month as airlines have been grounded and millions of commuters eschew the car for a short walk to a laptop on their kitchen table.
For an industry long aware that a 1-2 percent swing in the balance of supply and demand can be the difference between prices soaring or collapsing, the extent of the fall in consumption is hard to process. As Europe and North America hunker down, the latest estimates suggest 10 to 25 percent of global consumption could vanish in the coming few months. In normal times the world consumes some 100m barrels a day.
Such is the scale of the demand collapse that it risks overshadowing the price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, who are flooding the market with unnecessary barrels after falling out over how to respond to the crisis. But there is little doubt their actions have exacerbated the crash and lengthened the timeline of recovery. The result is likely to be storage tanks being filled to the brim within months. Even supertankers at sea, called into action as emergency storage vessels, could be maxed out by the end of summer.
Respite will come only once the most expensive oil production starts to shut down, or the weakest producers go bust.