A year ago, if anyone in the petroleum business had suggested that the moment of Peak Oil had already passed, they would have been laughed right off the drilling rig. Then 2020 happened.
Planes stopped flying. Office workers stayed home. “Zooming with the grandkids” replaced driving to see family. A year of global hunkering yielded the sharpest drop in oil consumption since Henry Ford cobbled together the first Model T. At its worst, global demand dropped by a staggering 29 million barrels a day.
As a once-in-a-century pandemic played out, British oil giant BP Plc in September made an extraordinary call: Humanity’s thirst for oil may never again return to prior levels. That would make 2019 the high-water mark in oil history.
BP wasn’t the only one sounding an alarm. While none of the prominent forecasters were quite as bearish, predictions for peak oil started popping up everywhere. Even OPEC, the unflappably bullish cartel of major oil exporters, suddenly acknowledged an end in sight—albeit still two decades away. Taken together these forecasts mark an emerging view that this year’s drop in oil demand isn’t just another crash-and-grow event as seen throughout history. Covid-19 has accelerated long-term trends that are transforming where our energy comes from. Some of those changes will be permanent.
It’s often difficult to recognize civilization-sized shifts in behavior until after they’ve occurred. Until the pandemic none of the major oil forecasters had seen an imminent demand peak. The debate won’t end now, especially with signs that the pandemic will ease in 2021. But if we look back from here and see the oil peak clearly in the past, what follows will be the evidence of how the energy future snuck up on us.
The peak no one saw coming
Energy analysts usually present multiple scenarios. The gap between each forecast comes down to differing assumptions about government policies, economic conditions and consumer preferences for things such as new electric cars and solar panels. A business-as-usual scenario assumes little impact from policy shifts or new technology.
Most analysts had only predicted declining demand for oil in improbably green scenarios that could only be achieved with far stronger global climate policies. What made BP’s 2020 forecast unique is that peak oil now snuck into its business-as-usual baseline. If technologies and pollution rules improve, the dropoff in demand would be even more swift.
The prospect of a 2019 peak went largely overlooked when BP released its highly regarded Energy Outlook in September. Pinpointing it was made more difficult by the fact that the company hadn’t yet included the latest real-world energy data from 2019.
The chart above updates the outlook with BP’s own oil figures for last year. It also presents estimates using BP’s calculations in exajoules—a more precise measure of energy consumption than a barrels-per-day figure. Without those changes, BP’s scenario suggested oil demand might plateau for the next decade before declining once and for all. BP didn’t respond to requests for comment.
A shakeup in oil accounting
Like any forecast, only time will tell if peak oil demand happened already or won’t come until 2040. That inescapable uncertainty is less important than the newfound agreement that a turning point is here.
The list of energy analysts who now foresee a peak in oil demand keeps growing. It includes Norway’s state-owned oil company Equinor (peaking around 2027-28), Norwegian energy researcher Rystad Energy (2028), French oil major Total SA (2030), consulting firm McKinsey (2033), clean-energy research group BloombergNEF (2035), and energy-industry advisors Wood Mackenzie (2035). The exporting nations of OPEC put the peak in 2040 while acknowledging that its new forecast might still prove too optimistic for oil.
Notable exceptions include the International Energy Agency, which sees demand “plateauing” but not quite peaking, and the U.S. Energy Information Agency. Both of these agencies advise governments on policy.
Fatih Birol, who leads the IEA, said oil demand can only come down with stronger government policies promoting electric cars and regulating petrochemicals. Even though a peak isn’t guaranteed, he told Bloomberg, “the value of oil is going down” and oil-dependent economies “have to prepare themselves before it’s too late.”
The year that lasts a generation
Oil prices rose this November, boosted by positive data from coronavirus vaccine trials and recovering demand in Asia. The sooner an effective vaccine can be deployed, the sooner the world can return to some picture of normalcy. But what will that look like?
“We’re not going back to the same economy,” U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell cautioned in mid-November. “We’re recovering, but to a different economy.” That new economy means people will continue working more from home, traveling less, and staying in to binge on digital programming. About two thirds of Covid’s impact on oil demand will be from setbacks to the global economy, according to BP’s estimates, and one third will be from permanent changes in behavior.
The gap between BP’s predictions for declining demand and the more bullish forecasts of OPEC and IEA can’t be explained by economic outlooks or remote work. Instead, it comes down to different readings of another shift clearly visible this year: drivers switching to battery-powered cars and trucks. Transportation slurps up more than half of the world’s crude, and three quarters of that goes specifically to wheels on the road. Forecasts for electric vehicles end up shaping the outlook for oil.