When oil crossed $120 a barrel for the first time in May 2008, oil cornucopians knew they were in trouble. Prices had quadrupled in just five years, yet had failed to bring new production online. Regular crude had flatlined around 74 million barrels per day (mbpd). The case for peak oil was looking stronger with every new uptick in crude futures.
The following month, prominent peak oil critic and cornucopian Daniel Yergin of IHS-CERA changed his stance: The peak oil threat would be neutralized by peak demand. Gasoline consumption had peaked in the U.S. and Europe, he argued, due to the combined effects of increasing efficiency, biofuels, and the recession.
In 2009 the peak demand story seemed confirmed, as prices stabilized around $70 in June, and U.S. consumption remained well off its previous high. Most people thought the nearly 2 mbpd decline in U.S. petroleum demand from 2007 through 2009 owed to efficiency and people driving less.
In reality, only about 15% owed to reduced gasoline demand. The other 85% was lost in the commercial and industrial sector: jet fuel, distillates (including diesel), kerosene, petrochemical feedstocks, lubricants, waxes, petroleum coke, asphalt and road oil, and other miscellaneous products.
Very simply, when oil got to $120 a barrel it cut into real productivity, and forced the world's most developed economies to shrink. At $147, it wreaked serious damage.
As I explained in "Investment Themes for the Next Decade," the new normal will be cycles of bumping our heads against the supply ceiling, falling dazed to the floor, rising back to our knees, then finally standing, only to bump our heads against the ceiling once more.