Electric Vehicle Resurgance Tempers Gasoline Outlook, But U.S. Refiners Could Bring Back Balance

Leading energy expert Daniel Yergin's so-called "Hydrocarbon Society" is slowly shifting away from gasoline as the presence of electric vehicles and fuel efficient cars on the road continues to rise.

Yergin writes in "The Prize," winner of the Pulitzer Prize, "A new era opened with the development of the internal combustion engine powered by gasoline. The oil industry had a new market, and a new civilization was born."

But, the advent of electric vehicles is changing that standard and a rift has emerged between groups predicting the slow demise of gasoline demand and those who still see a long, healthy run for the more than century old staple of global transportation. 

"Oil demand from passenger cars declines even as the number of vehicles doubles in the next quarter century, thanks mainly to improvements in efficiency, but also biofuels and rising ownership of electric cars," the International Energy Agency (IEA) notes in its World Energy Outlook 2016.

While the first electric car -- a six-passenger car made by William Morrison -- made its successful debut around 1890 and was popular in the early 1900s, according to the Department of Energy, gasoline-powered vehicles quickly overtook the market. It was Henry Ford's mass-produced Model T that effectively crippled the electric car industry as the gasoline-powered cars were cheaper.

By the start of the 21st century, however, electric cars were making a comeback. Honda Motor (HMC) unveiled the Insight hybrid in 1999. Then, the Toyota (TM) Prius became the first mass-produced hybrid electric vehicle and was released worldwide in 2000.

Tesla Motors (TSLA) also roared onto the electric car scene. That spurred other automakers, including General Motors' (GM) Chevrolet brand, BMW (BMWYY)  and Japan-based Nissan Motor (NSANY) , to include electric vehicles in their line-ups. Even Ford (F) , whose Model T once drove electric cars off the road, offers electric vehicles.

In 2015, more than 1 million electric cars were on the road, according to the IEA. The agency notes that in 2005, electric cars were still measured in the hundreds.

And, electric vehicle growth is expected to continue. The IEA forecasts 150 million electric cars by 2040, according to Bloomberg.

Based on this growth and more efficient cars, the agency now anticipates gasoline demand to decline to 22.8 million barrels a day by 2020, as compared to its forecast last year of 23 million barrels a day, Bloomberg reported citing the IEA. Gasoline demand is expected to rebound by 2030, but fall again as 2040 approaches.

Not everyone agrees with that outlook though.

Royal Dutch Shell (RDS.A) CFO Simon Henry says the overall oil demand could peak in five years.

"We've long been of the opinion that [oil] demand will peak before supply and that peak may be somewhere between five and 15 years hence and it will be driven by efficiency and substitution more than offsetting the new demand for transport," Henry said during a Nov. 1 conference call with analysts.

Meanwhile, Portfolio Guru founding partner and Real Money contributor Jim Collins is very bullish on gasoline demand.

"If the economy pulls out of its low growth malaise -- like the markets have been pricing in the past two weeks -- that is very constructive for gasoline demand," Collins wrote via email.

Collins also points out that the latest numbers from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) show U.S. gasoline demand up 1% year-over-year, leading him to believe that the growth rate will improve going forward. He is also bullish on the prospects for increased motorization in emerging markets, especially China.

Dr. Fereidun Fesharaki, founder of FGE, a global energy consulting firm, also believes global gasoline demand will continue to rise.

"Global demand for gasoline is expected to continue the growth that the sector has experienced over the past few years, especially in large markets in Asia where car ownership is becoming more common," Dr. Fesharaki wrote at the end of October for RBN Energy.

As the gasoline demand outlook shifts, whether it grows or declines, it will have an impact on oil refineries. Refineries produce an average of 19 gallons of gasoline from one 42-gallon barrel of crude oil, according to the EIA.

IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol told Bloomberg that refiners would likely be the biggest victim of a demand decline, as they have spent billions of dollars to maximize gasoline output over the last 20 years.

But Dr. Fesharaki says U.S. refineries could be the key to balancing the global gasoline market since they have the "ability to process even the heaviest, sourest crudes into a favorable mix of the most desirable, highest-value, refined products, gasoline chief among them."

"Even though a number of new refineries are currently under development around the world, they are not expected to add enough capacity to meet the projected growth in global gasoline demand," wrote Dr. Fesharaki. Rising demand for gasoline in China, India and other overseas markets is expected to further strain existing refineries.

"Consequently, over the coming decade it will fall to U.S. refiners to balance the worldwide gasoline market," Dr. Fesharaki said.

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