As the world reaches a tipping point in its will to address climate change, the industry must find a new way forward, especially in the United States.
Many are right to say that oil and gas are not going away; the transition is planned to take 30 years or more and will not decline to zero production. This fact, though, obscures the reality that peaking, then declining, demand for oil—gas is another story—will structurally change and globally redistribute the industry’s exploration and employment.
The story of oil supply and demand began its race to the top 150 years ago. “Shortage” and “glut” have meant that paired growth got out of sync, not that there was a real loss of production. For many decades the world has needed about 1 million B/D more each year than the previous year, but on a percentage basis growth has slowed. At the same time supply from previous years declines about 5 to 6% per year, arguably higher in recent years. The treadmill for new supply has been running hot for decades.
All major public forecasts in the past year call for oil demand to plateau between now and about 2030 when accounting for ongoing changes to policy. (To be clear, some show a peak in the 2030s in “business as usual” cases, but they also show even sooner peaks if policy and demand changes accelerate). BP’s Energy Outlook 2020 from last fall took the bold—and well-argued—position that peak oil demand is today and that it is only a question of how fast demand declines. “Peak” demand isn’t really a peak like the Matterhorn; it is flatter like a weathered jebel. We know this from the example of the peak oil demand experienced by the developed world. We also know from that experience that forecasting agencies failed to predict the peak OECD oil demand in 2005 literally by decades even as demand turned down.
Reversal of demand growth presents a figurative and mathematical inflection point. Though existing production continues, growth becomes negative, and the pace of the new-supply treadmill plummets. When the need for new supply approximately halves, the Pareto principle tells us that the number of new projects required will fall more than half. Thus, the need for those industry professionals preferentially tasked with finding new oil supply—geophysicists, exploration geologists, drillers, reservoir engineers, landmen—may fall quickly. Other disciplines like operations that service existing production will face only the headwinds of cost reductions and then the long, slow slide toward mid-century targets.
The United States via its swarm of large and small companies has dominated the global supply story for more than a decade with its unique shale revolution, but it had previously shriveled to a second-tier producer. Fig. 1 shows 55 years of oil production history. Fig. 1a shows the US supply deconstructed to its functional parts while Fig. 1b shows ascendent producers on the same scales.