Paradigm Shift: End of the Oil Age

The world thinks it’s in an energy crisis today and indeed there are shortages in some places but the world is undergoing an energy crisis more fundamental than the simple shortage happening today in Europe. A shortage can be remedied.

The larger problem is that oil use began to decline from 48% of total world energy consumption after 1977 (Figure 1). This was the beginning of the end of the oil age.

Figure 1. The end of the oil age began with the price shocks of the 1970s. Oil consumption has fallen from 48% to 36% of total energy use since 1977. Source: EIA, BLS & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.


Per-capita oil consumption has been flat since since 1985 (Figure 2). That means that individual worker productivity is not growing as it did before the oil shocks.

Figure 2. World per-capita oil consumption reached a peak in 1978 and has been on an undulating plateau since 1985. Source: EIA,FRED, OWID, BP & Labyrinth Consulting Services.

The world thinks that an energy transition is underway but fails to understand that transitions are additive. The relative percent of fuels changes but volumes rarely decrease. The world uses, for example, as much biomass today as in 1800 (Figure 3). Nor is there any likelihood that this transition will take 30 years instead of the century or longer period for earlier transitions.

Figure 3. Energy transitions are additive. The relative percent of fuels changes but volumes rarely decrease. The world uses as much biomass today as in 1800. Source: EIA, BP, IEA, FRED, OWWD, World Bank & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc

The real crisis today is that oil is the economy. The oil age has been ending for 50 years but there is no substitute for oil. Wind, solar and nuclear only address electric power generation which accounts for only 18% of world energy consumption. Even if we could magically transform 100% of electric power to non-fossil energy sources, this would not address the other 82% of energy use that society needs.

The medium- to long-term should be increasingly affected by limited supply growth (Figure 4). The market will send price signals to producers based on its sense of medium-term supply urgency. Prices will rally until inflation and a fragile economy end the rally. This is the dialectic that I expect will dominate oil markets in 2022 and probably beyond. There is great opportunity for those who understand this pattern.

Figure 4. World oil production is unlikely to regain November 2018 peak of 102 mmb/d. Source: EIA STEO, EIA AEO 2022 & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

These themes are playing against a backdrop of massive global debt load and the imaginary recovery from the economic closures of 2020 and 2021.

Price formation in oil markets is all about supply and inventories are part of supply. Old-paradigm analysts believe that oil demand must revert to ever-higher levels which supply simply cannot meet. In fact, the opposite is true. The correct oil paradigm is supply-driven and price-constrained.


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