Global Oil Demand Forecasts Show Why Oilsands Might Never Recover

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What's good for the planet won't be great for the oilsands, if two recent studies are any indication.

The price of oil could level out at anywhere between $83 and $87 per barrel from 2030 to 2050 if countries manage to pass lower-carbon policies, says a report from U.K.-based consultancy Cambridge Econometrics.

And with a break-even price of about $80 per barrel, any new oilsands mining projects would only barely make back their investment.

oilsands
Oil is refined at a Syncrude Canada Ltd. mining site near Fort McMurray, Alta. on Aug. 13, 2013. (Photo: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The study by Cambridge Econometrics envisions what global oil demand could look like by 2050 if transportation policies aimed at limiting CO2 emissions are strengthened by that time.

On-road transportation demanded approximately 38.2 million barrels of oil per day in 2015, it said. That demand could rise to 67.1 million barrels per day in 2050 if policies remain as they are today.

However, if climate policies are strengthened, demand for on-road vehicles alone could fall to 30.6 million barrels in 2050 — about 20 per cent less than was consumed last year.

global oil demand

The study reached a similar conclusion about oil prices.

Under a "business as usual" scenario, oil prices could climb as high as $130 per barrel by 2050. But in a world with more emissions-limiting policies, they could level off at around $87 per barrel in the same year.

oil prices

Cambridge Econometrics' study comes as 130 countries are set to sign on to the COP 21 climate deal. The deal commits signatories, including Canada, to limiting global temperature growth to one degree Celsius between now and 2021.

But that study isn't the only one to imagine what would happen to oil if countries managed to limit the effects of global warming.

A report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) from last week imagined a number of scenarios in which oil demand could drop to well below what it is today, if countries limited global global temperatures to two degrees Celsius.

One scenario, which was outlined by the IEA, saw global demand falling to 74.1 million b/d, about 24 per cent below current production of 97 million b/d.

Norwegian firm Statoil, meanwhile, envisioned global oil demand falling to 15 per cent below current levels. Its scenario assumed policy changes such as global pricing of carbon and shifts to green technologies.

Another scenario considered the impacts of high technology such as electric vehicles. It also considered the implications of alternative fuels.

It saw global oil demand falling to 74.6 million barrels per day by 2030. In this scenario, alternative fuel would capture 19 per cent of global transportation energy, and electric vehicles would make up six per cent of total vehicle stocks.

What about Canada?

Such scenarios would be positive news for the planet. But they could create difficulties in oil-producing economies.

Oil represented half of Canada's exports when the product was selling at $100 per barrel. (It was about US$39.93 at close on Monday.)

The Bank of Canada estimates that oil could make up only 40 per cent of the country's exports when prices recover from the current shock.

oilsands
The Suncor oilsands plant and tailings pond at their operation north of Fort McMurray, Alta. on Nov. 3, 2011. (Photo: Todd Korol/Reuters)

But the Great White North has seen economic benefits even as oil has fallen.

Canada might actually be better off with oil at $30 per barrel because if it went any higher, so would the Canadian dollar, CIBC economist Benjamin Tal noted Friday.

And that, he said, would hurt the gains that Canadian exporters made when oil prices started plummeting.

So falling demand for oil may not be all bad news for Canada. The oilsands, though? Plenty more challenges could be on their way.

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