OPEC hit as ‘peak oil demand’ arrives and US imports fall

US oil imports Apr15

Oil market traders have been having fun in recent weeks, as they have managed to create guaranteed price movements every week:

  • US oil inventory data is published on Tuesday and Wednesday
  • This gives traders the chance to push prices lower as the inventories continue to rise
  • US oil rig data is published on Friday
  • This creates the chance to push prices higher again as the number of working rigs falls
  • In turn, this volatility also creates great opportunities for media coverage, further boosting trading interest.

However, in the real world, these trading games are simply a distraction.  Far more important is the massive change underway in world oil markets, as highlighted in the above chart of US oil imports:

  • It shows US crude oil and product imports since 1993, and confirms these peaked in 2006 at 14.7mbd
  • Since then, they have fallen by more than a third to just 9.3mbd (green line)
  • OPEC has been the big loser, with its exports down nearly 2/3rds from 6.4mbd to 2.4mbd (orange)
  • Critically, Canada’s exports have been higher than OPEC’s since May last year (red)

These developments are naturally being ignored by the traders.  But they go a long way to explaining why market share has become the prime objective for most oil exporters, as discussed in October’s pH Report, “Saudi Arabia needs much lower oil prices“.

Equally important is that the world is now arriving at ‘peak oil demand’.  As a new Bloomberg analysis confirms:

Saudi leaders have worried for years that climate change and high crude prices will boost energy efficiency, encourage renewables, and accelerate a switch to alternative fuels such as natural gas, especially in the emerging markets that they count on for growth. They see how demand for the commodity that’s created the kingdom’s enormous wealth—and is still abundant beneath the desert sands—may be nearing its peak….”

Oil Minister Naimi told reporters in Qatar three years ago, “Demand will peak way ahead of supply .

Plus, of course, demographic shifts are already reducing US gasoline demand, as I noted last month:

  • Average per capita miles driven have fallen 8.4% since 2004
  • Older people no long act as a taxi service for their children, and stop driving to work when they retire
  • Millennials (those born between 1983-2000) have far less interest in driving than their parents

A further headwind for demand growth is highlighted by the US Energy Information Agency’s new Annual Report:

“The need for imports will further decline after 2020 as increased vehicle fuel economy standards limit growth in domestic demand.” 

Saudi Arabia is clearly not being distracted by the oil traders’ temporary excitement   It knows it would risk being marginalised if it continued with the previous policy of cutting production to support prices.  As Naimi noted last month:

Saudi Arabia cut output in the 1980s to support prices. I was responsible for production at Aramco at that time, and I saw how prices fell.  So we lost on output and on prices at the same time,” al-Naimi said. “We learned from that mistake.”


My weekly round-up of Benchmark prices since the Great Unwinding began is below, with ICIS pricing comments: 
Benzene Europe, down 42%. “There have been more exports out of Europe across the Atlantic since the end of March, helping to balance out the length seen on benzene since the start of the year”
Brent crude oil, down 41%
Naphtha Europe, down 36%. “Naphtha demand from the petrochemical sector is being undermined by cheaper propane, which is seen as the better feedstock”
PTA China, down 33%. “Prices were largely firmer owing to price gains seen in the upstream crude futures and feedstock paraxylene (PX) markets”
HDPE US export, down 23%. “Domestic export prices stayed the same”
¥:$, down 16%
S&P 500 stock market index, up 6%

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