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It’s a world of worry for oil companies

By Ryan Maye Handy: 8 July 2017

India hopes to sell only electric vehicles by 2030. China is offering incentives to buy electric cars and investing heavily in renewable technologies. Volvo will scrap the pure internal combustion engine in favor of hybrids and electric cars.

And on Thursday, France announced it plans to ban the sale of diesel and gasoline-fueled cars by 2040.

The world’s major oil companies might disagree when global demand for petroleum will peak, but the news of the past seven months suggests that they should be worried, if they aren’t already. Nations, states and private companies are demanding cleaner energy, leaving the world’s oil producers to face a reckoning that many haven’t yet accepted.

European companies, analysts say, are at the forefront of recognizing this new reality.

Royal Dutch Shell and the Norway’s Statoil foresee peak demand hitting by 2030; others, like the French oil major Total and the British company BP, predict 2040. In contrast, American companies such as Chevron and Exxon Mobil don’t foresee oil demand peaking anytime soon, if ever.

Even as U.S. demand wanes with more efficient cars and changing commuting patterns, companies like Chevron and Exxon Mobil are banking on the rising middle classes of China, India and other emerging nations to buy more cars, demand more consumer goods and suck up the juice that the companies sell.

But recent developments show they may be disappointed. In January, China, already offering incentives for electric vehicles, said it would spend $360 billion on renewable energy. That news was followed by India setting an ambitious goal of electric-only car sales in a little more than a decade.

Around the world, more car manufacturers are offering electric-only models. Last week, Volvo became the first company to plan a complete phase-out of traditional cars.

To be sure, Volvo’s goal of 1 million electric vehicles by 2025 would only cut 20,000 barrels a day in gasoline demand, and it will likely be years beyond that for electric vehicles to make big impact on global petroleum consumption.

At the same time, however, there’s a sense among industry experts that forecasts may well be underestimating the growth of electric vehicles, said Trey Cowan, a senior industry analyst for Platts RigData, a unit of S&P Global Platts, a data, analysis and consulting firm.

Some oil companies have made moves to brace for a future in which oil plays a diminishing role. Many are increasing investments in the production of natural gas, the fuel of choice for generating electricity, and some are investing in renewables. BP, for example, operates a wind farm in West Texas.

In June, Royal Dutch Shell announced it plans to acquire MP2 Energy, a Woodlands-based power generator and retail electric company, joining Total in establishing a presence in the merchant power industry.

“I think it does reflect the changing landscape of energy going forward,” said Brian Youngberg, a senior energy analyst for a Missouri-based investment firm Edward Jones. “We eventually will hit peak oil demand globally.”

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