Full Title: Oil Intensity: The Curiously Steady Decline of Oil in GDP
Author(s): Christof Rühl, Titus Erker
Publisher(s): Columbia Center for Global Energy Policy
Publication Date: September 9, 2021
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Oil is the largest primary fuel, and the trajectory of oil consumption is of great concern and consequence for economic, political, and, not least, for climate change reasons. Anticipating oil prices and production from year to year is not easy; identifying even basic ingredients of aggregate demand and supply schedules, such as price or income elasticities, is notoriously difficult. It’s an additional challenge to model the structure of a market that sometimes appears to be highly cartelized, and at other times populated by a large flock of peaceful price takers.
But a remarkably steady metric—and possible tool for projecting consumption into the future—has been identified in this paper: oil intensity. Oil intensity is the volume of oil consumed per unit of gross domestic product (GDP). Measured simply in barrels per dollar, it is often viewed as a broad measure of oil efficiency; it certainly demonstrates the importance of oil in a society.
What is worth a closer look, and is the focus of this paper reporting on oil and gas related research at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, is the pattern by which this progress has been achieved. Since 1984, oil intensity has fallen every year in an almost perfectly linear fashion: the amount of oil used per dollar of global GDP has dropped by roughly the same amount each year. Wars and revolutions, booms and busts, OPEC successes and failures, and every other monumental event in the last 35 years left their imprint on oil markets but didn’t alter oil intensity’s steady, downward crawl. This kind of regularity is very rare in any long-time trend, in economics or in energy.
Although oil intensity isn’t a new topic, an attempt to explain its curiously consistent downward progress—or even any discussion about it—is hard to find in the literature. For this paper, the authors explain the trend and cross-validate its predictive potential before delving into possible reasons behind the linear decline in oil intensity. It finally extrapolates what such a continuing trend might mean for oil consumption and policies around it going forward.