Oil demand has not been this low  since


By Guy Chazan in London

Oil demand is falling for the first time since the 2008-09 global financial crisis as a result of a mild winter, high crude prices and the European economic crisis, according to fresh estimates from the International Energy Agency.

The industrialised nations’ watchdog said oil demand dropped by 300,000 barrels a day in the final quarter of 2011. Such a fall is rare: over the last decade, oil demand has posted drops only in the financial crisis of mid-2008 to mid-2009.

The IEA revised down its outlook for growth in 2012 to 1.1m b/d from 1.3m b/d amid signs of weakness in the world economy.

It also warned of the geopolitical risk posed to oil markets by rising tensions with Iran.

Global oil demand in 2011 was 89.5m b/d, the IEA said.

David Fyfe, head of the IEA’s oil industry and markets division, said the year-on-year fall in demand was largely due to the exceptionally cold winter of 2010-11 compared to this winter’s milder temperatures. But it was still surprising.

“Even in the 2008-9 crisis we only had a couple of quarters of absolute contraction, so it is quite rare,” he said. “We’re flagging that there are clearly downside risks to the global economy and to oil demand.”

The IEA’s latest monthly oil market report comes against the backdrop of a looming showdown between Iran and the west over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Oil prices jumped $4-$5 a barrel at the new year as the European Union prepared to impose a ban on Iranian oil imports and Tehran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial conduit for oil exports from the Gulf.

The agency characterised the oil market as finely balanced between fears of supply disruptions due to the coming Iranian embargo and concerns about an economic slowdown that will weaken demand for oil.

The price of crude has been relatively stable since last spring within a range of $100 to $120 a barrel. But the IEA said the stability was “more apparent than real.”

It said markets were caught between a “rock” – the growing likelihood of a sharp economic slowdown, or even outright recession, in 2012 – and a “hard place” – possible geopolitical turmoil triggered by the west’s face-off with Iran.

“That is scarcely a source of comfort,” the report said.

Oil markets in Europe and Asia, hit badly last year by the loss of Libyan supply, worry that sanctions against Iran will seriously affect the availability of crude.

The leaders of Japan, China and South Korea have been seeking assurances from Middle Eastern producers like Saudi Arabia that they can make up any shortfall.

Europe, which imports about 600,000 b/d of Iranian crude, is also on the hunt for replacement supplies.

These concerns come at a time of tightness in physical oil markets.

Last year, non-Opec supply grew by only 50,000 barrels a day, the third lowest performance in the last decade – largely due to a series of unscheduled disruptions in places like the North Sea, Canada and China. That was compounded by the unrest in Libya, which knocked out its exports.

While members of the Opec cartel, especially Saudi Arabia, increased production to compensate, and the IEA released emergency stocks, this was not enough to make up for the Libyan shortfall.

The IEA said crude stock levels in industrialised countries remain below the five-year average for a fifth consecutive month.

European refiners faced a “difficult task” in finding substitutes for Iranian supply, and some market dislocation was inevitable, the agency warned.

But the gradual phase-in of any EU import ban and the “considerable latitude in implementation” built into the US sanctions “will serve to minimise unwanted market disruptions,” it added.

Sourced & published by Henry Sapiecha

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