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Global Oil Exports/Imports

Global Oil Exports/Imports thumbnail

Yesterday, I posted some UNCTAD shipping data which suggested that the global oil tanker fleet was expanding rapidly post 2005:

The most obvious interpretation would be that the global oil trade was expanding, which is a little counterintuitive, given that global oil production has been more-or-less on a plateau since 2005 and oil exporters have been growing their own consumption rapidly as their economies are stimulated by high oil prices.

One possibility is that shippers have been building too many ships in error, so that actual usage is not rising, even though fleet capacity is.  Commenter cimon9999 dug up this data on actual tonne-miles shipped:

This shows some increase in crude oil shipments, albeit more modest than the growth in the shipping fleet.  There is more growth in the trade in oil products.

To get a better handle on things, I then looked to the EIA who used to maintain global data on oil imports and exports (until their budget got cut).  The data run from 1986 to 2009, and look like this:

This shows an unambiguous peak in total world exports in 2005.  The average rate of decline from 2005 to 2009 was 1.8%/year.  If you believed that data, and if the 1.8% decline rate were to continue, it would take about 40 years for global oil exports to half.

However, the import data show a plateau from 2005 to 2008, and then a smaller fall (presumably due to the great recession).  Other things being equal, I’d be more inclined to believe the oil import data, since it’s mostly accounted for in developed countries with reasonably functional bureaucracies, whereas the export data is coming largely from trying to infer what goes on with OPEC countries, some of whose transparency and integrity leaves a lot to be desired, in my experience, and who have an incentive to understate their production (OPEC quotas).  And the import data suggest a more optimistic picture.

Of course, those of us in the OECD will probably need to cut our usage faster than this data indicates as China, India, etc will likely continue to increase theirs.

Finally, how can the number of tonne-miles of oil shipped be increasing, even as the quantity traded decreases?  One possibility, certainly, is that one or other data set is wrong.  The other possibility is that although the amount of oil traded has declined at least somewhat, the average distance that it travels to market is increasing faster than that, so the overall volume of tonne-miles is increasing.

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