Big Oil confronts possibility of terminal demand decline

From left to right: Semi-submersible oil platforms, Ocean Princess and Ocean Nomad, and the self-elevating drilling unit GSF Galaxy III are seen in the Cromarty Firth from the village of Cromarty, north of Inverness, in the Highlands of Scotland. (AFP/File)
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Updated 06 July 2020

Big Oil confronts possibility of terminal demand decline

  • IEA forecast that average daily oil demand will drop by 8 million barrels per day this year

PARIS: Although crude prices have rebounded from coronavirus crisis lows, oil execs and experts are starting to ask if the industry has crossed the Rubicon of peak demand.

The plunge in the price of crude oil during the first wave of coronavirus lockdowns — futures prices briefly turned negative — was due to the drop in global demand as planes were parked on tarmacs and cars in garages.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecast that average daily oil demand will drop by 8 million barrels per day this year, a decline of around 8 percent from last year.

While the agency expects an unprecedented rebound of 5.7 million barrels per day next year, it still forecasts overall demand will be lower than in 2019 owing to ongoing uncertainty in the airline sector. Some are questioning whether demand will ever get back to 2019 levels.

“I don’t think we know how this is going to play out. I certainly don’t know,” BP’s new CEO Bernard Looney said in May.

The COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing then with most planes grounded and white-collar workers giving up the commute to work from home.

“Could it be peak oil? Possibly. I would not write that off,” Looney told the Financial Times.

The concept of peak oil has long generated speculation.

Mostly, it has been focused on peak production, with experts forecasting that prices would reach astronomical levels as recoverable oil in the ground runs out.

But in recent months, the concept of peak demand has come into vogue, with the coronavirus landing an uppercut into fuel demand for the transportation sector followed by a knockout punch from the transition to cleaner fuels.

Michael Bradshaw, professor at Warwick Business School, said environmental groups are already lobbying to prevent the Paris agreements becoming another casualty of the pandemic, stressing the need for a Green New Deal for the recovery.

“If they are successful, demand for oil might never return to the peak we saw prior to COVID-19,” he said in comments to journalists.

The transport sector may never fully recover, Bradshaw posited.

“After the pandemic, we might have a different attitude to international air travel or physically going into work,” he said.

Other experts say we haven’t reached the tipping point yet, and might not for a while.

“Many people have said, including some CEOs of some major companies, with the lifestyle changes now to teleworking and others we may well see oil demand has peaked, and oil demand will go down,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol said recently.

“I don’t agree with that. Teleconferencing alone will not help us to reach our energy and climate goals, they can only make a small dent,” Firol added while unveiling a recent IEA report.

Moez Ajmi at consulting and auditing firm E&Y dismissed as “science fiction” the idea that a definitive drop in oil demand could suddenly emerge.

He expects a slow recovery in demand even if the coronavirus leaves the global economy weakened.

That weakness would also likely slow adoption of greener fuels.

“It will take time for fossil fuels, which today still account for some 80 percent of primary global consumption to face real competition” from rival energy sources, he said.

Meanwhile, the oil industry could face financing challenges.

Bronwen Tucker, an analyst at Oil Change International, says the industry is now under pressure from investors.

After “a pretty big wave of restrictions on coal and some restrictions on oil and gas, the risks to oil and gas investment right now feel a lot more salient,” she said.

The industry is already writing down the value of assets to face up to the new market reality of lower demand and prices.

Royal Dutch Shell said this past week that it will take a $22 billion charge as it reevaluates the value of its business in light of the coronavirus.

Last month, rival BP reduced the worth of its assets by $17.5 billion.

“This process has further to run, and we expect further large impairments to occur across the sector,” said Angus Rodger of specialist energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie.


Bailout will keep Air France-KLM afloat for less than year: CEO

Updated 13 min 30 sec ago

Bailout will keep Air France-KLM afloat for less than year: CEO

  • ‘If we base it upon the past few weeks, it is clear that the recovery in traffic will be slower than expected’
  • Governments are coming under pressure to tie airline bailouts to environmental commitments

PARIS: Bailouts provided to Air France-KLM by the French and Dutch governments will keep the airline flying less than a year, its CEO Benjamin Smith said Monday and evoked the possibility of injecting new capital.
In an interview with the French daily l’Opinion, Smith also warned that calls for airlines to contribute more to fight climate change could be catastrophic for their survival which is already under threat due to the coronavirus pandemic.
When countries imposed lockdowns earlier this year to stem the spread of the coronavirus airlines faced steep drops in revenue that have claimed several carriers.
A number of countries stepped in with support, including France which provided $8.2 billion to Air France and the Netherlands which received a $2.9 billion package.
“This support will permit us to hold on less than 12 months,” said Smith.
The reason is that air traffic is picking up very slowly as many northern hemisphere countries are now fearing a second wave of infections.
“If we base it upon the past few weeks, it is clear that the recovery in traffic will be slower than expected,” according to Smith, who said when the bailout was put together the airline was expecting a return to 2019 levels only in 2024.
Smith said discussions were already underway with shareholders on shoring up the airline group, and steps would be taken before the next regular annual meeting in the second quarter of next year.
“One, three or five billion euros? It is too early to put a figure on a possible recapitalization,” he said.
The airline group had $12.12 billion in cash or available under credit lines.
Major shareholders include the French government with a 14.3 percent stake, the Dutch government at 14 percent, as well as Delta and China Eastern airlines which each hold an 8 percent stake.
Governments are coming under pressure to tie airline bailouts to environmental commitments.
One proposal that has come from a citizen’s convention convoked by President Emmanuel Macron would cost airlines an estimated $3.6 billion.
Smith said the imposition of environmental charges on the industry would be “irresponsible and catastrophic” for Air France-KLM.