By Brentan Alexander, PhD; Chief Science Officer & Chief Commercial Officer
Last week, May futures for WTI crude, a benchmark often used for U.S.-sourced oil, crashed into negative territory for the first time ever. It was the last day to trade a May contract, and with storage space filling up as oil demand craters, contract holders with nowhere to put the oil they were obligated to physically accept were forced to pay to have somebody take contracts off their hands. This moment represents a stunning new chapter in the ongoing oil crisis that has seen record drops for oil consumption and prices globally. Spot prices in May will remain depressed, and the June market is likely to be painful as well. It may seem like the days of $40 oil are behind us, and that we’re witnessing the beginning of the end for oil as the lifeblood of the global economy. We aren’t: Oil will one day return to $40 a barrel, but the last few weeks have demonstrated in hyperdrive how the oil endgame will play out.
It seems that oil isn’t the precious commodity it has been made out to be. Much ink has been spilled on the concept of peak oil, wherein dwindling reserves of oil cause rising prices as the marketplace becomes more and more supply-constrained. In the endgame scenario, supply shocks send prices soaring to levels that force global economies to find alternative fuels, renewable energy, or otherwise. A key issue with the peak oil theory is that ‘reserves’ are only counted if they’re known to exist and can be extracted with current technology.
As prices soared to upwards of $100 a barrel around 2008, many wondered if the high prices were here to stay, and if peak oil was coming to pass. Instead, high prices were just the motivation needed to unlock a bit of American ingenuity. Within 10 years, new technology unlocked vast fields of oil and gas throughout Texas, Pennsylvania, and the Dakotas. The ‘reserves’ in the United States multiplied, oil prices dropped, and the United States regained its status as the world’s leading producer of oil.
Peak oil, it turns out, is a story of peak demand. As some economies of the world begin to face the realities of climate change, new renewable and net-zero (or negative!) technologies have emerged and will emerge to supplant fossil oil. At first, these technologies require higher fossil prices, government programs, or both, to compete in the market. But as they mature and grow, prices come down. Demand for fossil will drop accordingly. And at some point, so little demand will exist for crude oil that producers will have to pay somebody to take if off their hands or stop producing it altogether.
This market conversion has already begun. Tesla has proven electric vehicles can out-perform and out-sexy the incumbents. Biorefineries are being built to turn household trash in to jet fuel. Governments are taking action to incentivize cleaner fuels. Nevertheless, action thus far has been spotty at best and despite the current market, peak oil demand has not yet come to pass.
The unprecedented demand destruction caused by COVID-19 will eventually subside as the threat of the pandemic wanes. The public will fly again, drive again, and buy plastic again; oil demand will ratchet up again. Shuttered wells won’t restart, stored oil will be drawn down, OPEC will maintain supply controls to balance government budgets, and prices will rise to $40 or more again. But someday, hopefully in the not too distant future, oil will again find itself in decline when a different (and more permanent) source of demand destruction weans the global economy off of fossil carbon for good.
Originally published at https://newenergyrisk.com on April 27, 2020.