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  December 22nd, 2017 | Written by

Uncertainty in the Oil Demand Curve

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  • What are the long-term implications of low fuel prices?
  • New sources of oil are not keeping up with demand.
  • At current oil prices, companies don’t make enough money to develop new fields.

Motorists, truckers, and transportation providers may rejoice in our current era of low fuel prices. But what might be the longer-term implications be?

Numbers from an oil market research organization, Rystad Energy indicate that new sources of oil are not keeping up with demand. In fact, consumption has outpaced new oil discoveries since 2010.

With oil prices of around $60 per barrel or less, oil companies don’t make enough money to develop new fields in difficult locations. It’s not a shortage of oil that’s the problem, but a shortage of investment in new production.

Exacerbating the problem is that some oil demand forecasts fall short of what actual long-term demand may be, which could result in price volatility as the scenario plays out. IEA and OPEC forecasts assume annual demand increases of one percent per year until 2025. But Rystad points out that demand already exceeds that level, and global trade—currently growing at a four-percent clip—may push demand that much higher.

Part of the perception among those seeing slower future demand has to do with the rate at which automobiles move away from internal combustion engines. There is no doubt that this is happening, but the timing of a fall in demand related to that phenomenon is highly uncertain.

If continued growing demand for diesel and gasoline stretches out for another decade or more, there may be a shortage of supply and an increase in prices. If the oil sector has less deployed capacity to respond by drilling for more oil, high levels of medium-term volatility could be the result.

The current recovery in world trade has played out in front of a background of low oil prices. Until the recent upticks in ocean freight rates, the low rates characteristic of ocean shipping over the last few years have been driven both by overcapacity and low fuel costs. But it’s not at all certain that that scenario will continue.