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Spring 2015-- Peak Oil Demand?

April 02, 2015

Conventional wisdom proclaims the demand for, and the price of, oil will inevitably rise in the coming decades. Surely worldwide population growth and an exploding middle class among the developing nations will be the driving forces behind this prediction.

If true, then many of today’s geopolitical and economic dynamics are likely to persist and deepen. For example, Russia’s ability to use oil as a weapon will continue to fuel an aggressive foreign policy. In our own hemisphere, Venezuela may be able to continue its irresponsible domestic and international policies without fear of going bankrupt. OPEC, and Saudia Arabia in particular, will continue to wield considerable influence in the global marketplace.

Yet there are reasons to question this view. One contrarian is Amy Myers Jaffe, the executive director of energy and sustainability at the University of California, Davis (my alma mater). She is also chairwoman of the Future of Oil and Gas for the World Economic Forum. In the May 6, 2015 edition of the Wall Street Journal, Ms. Jaffe outlines several factors she believes will lead to peak global oil demand within the next two decades.

She cites general agreement among experts that “a combination of policy inducements, energy taxes, and technological breakthroughs has resulted in a peak in oil demand in the largest industrialized economies.” Europe’s oil use has dropped considerably since the mid-1990s, while the U.S. Energy Information Administration identifies 2007 as the peak in our demand. Even China is expecting peak oil demand by 2025 “as the country transitions to less-energy intensive activities.”

A surprising nod to big data recognizes “exponential gains in productivity… for everything from transportation logistics to industrial equipment… that offer dramatic savings on energy use.” For example, airlines use big data to ensure fuller flights and better routes, while mobile apps help drivers avoid traffic congestion. Similar efficiencies are expected in the rail industry.

Demographically, the world is experiencing rapid urbanization as workers seek to integrate their job and family life in cities where opportunities are plentiful. Perhaps you’ve noticed how heavily populations within large cities rely upon mass transit. Subways, light rail, taxis, Uber, and other iterations of shared transportation portend a decline in car ownership. Of course, tele-commuting will become even more pervasive in the global economy and further reduce our dependence upon fossil fuels.

These are trends that have already been identified and don’t even speak to innovation in renewable energy. Many are now using government tax credits to purchase solar for their homes or businesses. Tesla is the current face of electric cars, but technological improvements will likely attract more interest among consumers from a growing list of manufacturers.

As investors, we must learn to question the consensus. When someone is interviewed on TV or authors a book proclaiming a “universally accepted view”, we should politely ignore their prophetic utterances. Instead, watch in awe struck wonder as innovation and incentive reshape our world in ways we can scarcely imagine. Keep the faith!