From Deepa D. Datta and Robert J. Vigfusson
Although China’s growth has slowed recently, the country’s demand for oil could be entering a period of faster growth that could result in substantially higher oil prices. Because Americans buy and sell oil and petroleum products in the global market, global demand prospects influence the profitability of U.S. oil producers and the costs paid by U.S. consumers. Analysis based on the global relationship between economic development and oil demand illustrates the prospects for Chinese oil demand growth and the resulting opportunities and challenges for U.S. producers and consumers.
The oil market has seen two major surprises in the 21st century. The most recent was the shale revolution, which dramatically increased the amount of oil supplied by North American producers and contributed to the oil price collapse of 2014.
Before the shale revolution, however, there was rapid demand growth from emerging market economies. Propelled by robust GDP growth, China’s demand for oil nearly doubled within a decade, and other emerging markets experienced similar growth. As a consequence, oil prices soared in 2007 and 2008, and advanced economies, including the United States, cut their consumption.
Most studies assume that shifts in global demand over the next decade will be gradual, with oil prices continuing to be driven primarily by supply. The surprising resilience of U.S. shale oil production both to lower oil prices and to coordinated actions by OPEC countries suggests that any oil price recovery will remain subdued (Energy Information Administration 2016). However, one potentially important source of future rapid growth in demand and thus in prices comes from emerging market economies, especially China. Given that Chinese demand helped boost world oil prices in the early 2000s, we consider the implications of a similar surprise in the coming years.
China’s future demand for oil will depend on both its economic growth and its energy choices. A high level of growth combined with energy-intensive choices could result in Chinese oil demand doubling by 2025. Even in a scenario with more moderate growth and less energy-intensive choices, China’s oil demand would still grow by over 30% by 2025. To the extent that U.S. and foreign oil producers do not anticipate this demand increase, prices would have to rise, perhaps dramatically.