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Oil industry sees no threat from electric car

Reuters  |  London 

The biggest oil companies in the world have calculated that few, if any, of today's drivers will see electric cars outnumber gasoline and diesel models in their lifetimes.

While politicians and green lobby groups insist the future of transport is electric, in the past two months BP and Exxon have released data which points to electric cars making up only 4-5% of all cars globally in 20-30 years.

Meanwhile, some governments are targeting as much as a 60% market share for electric vehicles over a similar period.

The oil company forecasts may appear self-serving, but if they are widely accepted could provoke a policy shift that offers greater incentives for electric cars to end our addiction to oil.

And unlike more optimistic predictions from consultants like McKinsey, these forecast are backed by cash. They guide tens of billions of dollars in long-term investment in oil production and refining and it is oil that stands to lose if they get it wrong.

They don't, of course, take into account a major breakthrough in battery technology that could give electric cars a cost and performance edge over the internal combustion engine.

In its Energy Outlook for 2030, released earlier this month, BP predicted that electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids, will make up only 4% of the global fleet of 1.6 billion commercial and passenger vehicles in 2030.

"Oil will remain the dominant transport fuel and we expect 87% of transport fuel in 2030 will still be petroleum based," BP Chief Executive Bob Dudley said as he unveiled the BP statistics on January 18.

The balance is seen coming from biofuels, natural gas and electricity.

Plug-in hybrids can be powered from the mains and only rely on their small gasoline engines when the battery dies.

Standard hybrids are principally driven by an internal combustion engine whose efficiency is boosted by the recycling of energy generated from braking.

Exxon Mobil, the biggest oil and gas company in the world, says the continued high cost of electric vehicles compared to petroleum cars, means take-up won't even increase much during the 2030s.

In its 2040 Energy Outlook, released in December, the Texas-based company said electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and vehicles that run on natural gas would make up only 5% of the fleet by 2040.

Peter Voser, Chief Executive of Royal Dutch Shell, the industry number two, sees a rosier future for electric vehicles. He predicts they will account for up to 40% of the worldwide car fleet, although only by 2050.

A $50 billion-a-year opinion

The statistics published by Exxon and BP, Europe's second-largest oil company by market value, are perhaps the most detailed long-term forecasts on electric vehicle take-up.

These Energy Outlooks guide how the oil groups allocate their annual investment budgets - among the biggest in the world, at over $50 billion combined for BP and Exxon.

The expected continued dominance of petroleum partly explains the scaling back in BP and Shell's solar, hydrogen and wind power ambitions in recent years, and Exxon's continued reluctance to get involved in renewable energy.

Insofar as the companies are active in green energy, it is mainly in the production and blending of biofuels. This is driven by US and European governments' insistence that a%age of motor fuels sold must come from plant-based sources.

If the oil companies are wrong about electric cars they will find their investments in big and expensive new oil production projects, which increasingly need crude prices around $80 per barrel to be profitable, not paying off.

The companies do see an easing in the addiction to oil, though.

Despite increased car ownership in China and India, Exxon predicts "global demand for fuel for personal vehicles will soon peak" due to an increase in average fuel efficiency.

BP expects the efficiency of combustion engines to double by 2030, with a third of vehicles on the road being hybrids.

This trend will be driven by more stringent fuel economy standards in the US, CO2 reduction legislation in Europe and an end to oil subsidies in developing countries.

Increased airline and commercial vehicle traffic will counterbalance some of the efficiency gains from cars but BP predicts that, helped by increased use of biofuels, demand for oil for transport overall will plateau in the mid-2020s.

Greens fume, politicians see quicker adoption

Green groups reacted with suspicion to the oil industry forecasts.

"Exxon would say that, wouldn't they. A big take-up of electric cars is not something they would like to see," said Jos Dings, director of Brussels-based sustainable transport campaign group, Transport and Environment.

"The future for petrol and deisel doesn't look good," he countered.

Nonetheless, environmentalists like Dings fear political complacency about improving vehicle efficiency could prompt governments to ease targets to cut vehicle emissions, which could in turn delay the electrification of transport.

Big Oil's pessimistic outlook for electric cars is at odds with many governments' plans.

Electric vehicles barely register on the statistics of car sales at the moment. Nonetheless, China is targeting 5 million electric vehicles on its roads by 2020, according to media reports. This would represent around 3% of its predicted fleet.

The Australian government's main energy adviser, the Australian Energy Market Commission, has predicted electric vehicles will make up 20 per cent of new car sales in Australia by 2020 and 45 per cent by 2030.

The UK's Committee on Climate, which advises the government, has predicted electric vehicles will reach around 60% of new cars and vans by 2030. And New Zealand hopes to get to 60% by 2040.

The US has more muted ambitions. President Barack Obama said he wants to put 1 million electric vehicles on US roads by 2015, a figure that would represent less than half of one per cent of the total fleet.

Many US experts and officials predict a tipping point in the uptake in electric vehicles in the latter part of this decade, as technology improves, economies of scale kick in and consumer fears about being stranded when their batteries run flat, or "range anxiety", eases.

However, data compiled by the US Energy Information Administration may explain the lack of an official US target. Last week, the agency released an 'abridged version' of its Annual Energy Outlook 2012, due to be released in full in the Spring.

Tables used in formulating the outlook show electric vehicles and plug in hybrids are expected to account for only 1.3% of the US fleet in 2030.

Furthermore, the agency predicts that neither consumers, nor carmakers, will get over 'range anxiety'. By 2035, the agency sees few, if any, electric vehicles on US roads that can travel for 200 miles without recharging.

First Published: Mon, February 06 2012. 00:00 IST