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Peak Oil is Suddenly Upon Us

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Planes stopped flying. Office workers stayed home. “Zooming with the grandkids” replaced driving to see family. A year of global hunkering yielded the sharpest drop in oil consumption since Henry Ford cobbled together the first Model T. At its worst, global demand dropped by a staggering 29 million barrels a day.

As a once-in-a-century pandemic played out, British oil giant BP Plc in September made an extraordinary call: Humanity’s thirst for oil may never again return to prior levels. That would make 2019 the high-water mark in oil history.

BP wasn’t the only one sounding an alarm. While none of the prominent forecasters were quite as bearish, predictions for peak oil started popping up everywhere. Even OPEC, the unflappably bullish cartel of major oil exporters, suddenly acknowledged an end in sight—albeit still two decades away. Taken together these forecasts mark an emerging view that this year’s drop in oil demand isn’t just another crash-and-grow event as seen throughout history. Covid-19 has accelerated long-term trends that are transforming where our energy comes from. Some of those changes will be permanent.

It’s often difficult to recognize civilization-sized shifts in behavior until after they’ve occurred. Until the pandemic none of the major oil forecasters had seen an imminent demand peak. The debate won’t end now, especially with signs that the pandemic will ease in 2021. But if we look back from here and see the oil peak clearly in the past, what follows will be the evidence of how the energy future snuck up on us.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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