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.


Canadian firm pulls out of Carrefour takeover after France insists ‘No’

Updated 16 January 2021

Canadian firm pulls out of Carrefour takeover after France insists ‘No’

  • Carrefour has more than 12,300 stores in more than 30 countries and employs 320,000 people worldwide
  • Canada's Couche-Tard has offered to take over the French supermarket giant for 16 billion euro ($19.5 billion)

PARIS: Canadian convenience store chain Couche-Tard has reportedly pulled out of a multi-billion euro takeover of supermarket giant Carrefour after the French government said it would veto the deal.
Negotiations over the 16 billion euro ($19.5 billion) deal ended after a meeting between the French Minister of the Economy Bruno Le Maire and the founder of Couche-Tard Alain Bouchard, Bloomberg news agency said, citing sources.
French ministers had insisted Friday they would not agree to the takeover because it could jeopardize food security, an even more important consideration given the coronavirus pandemic.
In an attempt to reassure ministers, Bouchard had promised to invest billions in Carrefour, said he would maintain employment for two years and that the group would be listed on the Paris Stock Exchange in parallel with Canada, Bloomberg reported.
Contacted by AFP, neither Couche-Tard nor Carrefour had confirmed the information on Friday evening.
Although talks had stopped, anonymous sources cited by Bloomberg said negotiations could resume if the French government changes its position.
But on Friday, France’s Economy Minister made his choice public, telling BMTV and RMC: “My position is a polite, but clear and definitive ‘No’.”
“Food security is a strategic consideration for our country and one does not just hand over one of the large French distributors like that,” Le Maire said.
“Carrefour is the biggest private sector employer in France with nearly 100,000 employees,” he noted, and the group accounts for 20 percent of the food distribution market in the country.
The French statements have not convinced the Canadian government.
A Canadian federal source said while they could understand concerns over allowing a foreign firm to take over such a large national employer, concerns over food security were unsubstantiated.
“But we cannot accuse a leading Canadian company like Couche-Tard of endangering the food sovereignty of an entire country,” the source, who requested anonymity, told AFP.

'Food sovereignty'
On Wednesday, Couche-Tard submitted a non-binding offer for Carrefour, valuing the group at more than 16 billion euros ($19.5 billion).
Le Maire made clear immediately that he was not in favor of a deal involving “an essential link in food security for the French, of food sovereignty.”
The government’s reaction had caused “surprise” at Carrefour itself, according to sources who said the comments were “premature” given that merger discussions had barely begun.
“We haven’t decided yet whether the interest shown is attractive for us,” one company official said on condition of anonymity earlier in the week.
Carrefour has more than 12,300 stores of various formats in more than 30 countries and in 2019 generated a net profit of 1.3 billion euros ($1.5 billion) on revenue of 80.7 billion euros ($97.4 billion).
It employs 320,000 people worldwide.
Couche-Tard has a worldwide network of more than 14,200 stores and earned a net profit of $2.4 billion on sales of $54 billion in its last complete year.
In the United States and several European countries, as well as in Latin America and southeast Asia, it operates under Circle K and other brands.