Gas pumpEnlarge Photo
Oil companies plan far, far into the future. And their analysts are paid enough to understand that carbon-emission limits in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere--and rising corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) rules in the U.S.--mean that new cars will get much, much more fuel-efficient.
That means that the current global fleet of 1 billion cars will consume less and less gasoline over time.
Moreover, that existing fleet of cars isn't likely suddenly to cover more miles, so any hope the oil companies have of demand increasing has to come from more cars.
Traffic in ChinaEnlarge Photo
And, indeed, China and other parts of the developing world--think India, Brazil, and Russia--are eagerly snapping up cars. So much so, in fact, that by some estimates, the global fleet could double to 2 billion vehicles over the next 20 years.
But if new vehicles roughly double in efficiency over that period--and new vehicles cover the same miles each year as current ones do today--you end up with flat consumption of gasoline and diesel even with twice as many vehicles.
Oil companies know this.
They also know that the pace of improvement in battery technology is slow--about 7 percent per year--and that an entirely new infrastructure of cell-fabrication plants that doesn't exist today must be built if plug-in electric car volume is going to increase over time.
In chats with various executives in the oil and gas industries, the oil men (there are very few women) pretty much discount any noticeable impact on their business from plug-in electric cars for at least a couple of decades.
At that point, some of them suggest, oil will have become not only more expensive to extract, but more valuable as a feedstock for higher-value goods. In other words: plastics.
2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas, El Segundo, CA, Nov 2011Enlarge Photo
And the natural-gas folks? They seem far less interested selling fuel to millions of natural-gas private cars than in, first, converting the world's power plants from coal to natural gas. This is already happening.
Simultaneously, they might consider natural gas as a fuel for certain types of vehicles--replacing diesel for long-haul trucks, for example, or in large centralized work-truck fleets.
But oil companies spent 20 years getting out of the "downstream" business of distribution (i.e. gas stations), which they viewed as troublesome and low-margin.
It seems highly unlikely, for the same reason, that natural-gas companies would try to build the hundreds of thousands of retail fueling stations that would be needed globally.
Sure, some other enterprise might do so. But find a commodity sold to consumers on as widespread as gasoline or diesel whose global distribution network was built out recently.
The only one we can think of is Coca-Cola.
This is all pretty theoretical, of course, and we'll admit it's far from based on exhaustive research.
We're open to countervailing evidence, if anyone can demonstrate (with links, please) any current efforts by global oil companies to disrupt, delay, or otherwise impede the rollout of plug-in electric cars now well underway by Nissan, General Motors, Tesla, and the rest of the world's carmakers.
Like the oil and gas industry, global carmakers take a long view. They now know that some degree of electrification is inevitable. And the smart ones understand that as the price difference continues to fall, many consumers will prefer electric cars over gasoline cars.
Did we mention we tend to be skeptical about conspiracy theories?
(4) Solar-powered cars are just around the corner.
When we say "solar-powered cars," most people think of cars with solar panels on the roof. It's a lovely idea: Cars powered purely by sunlight.
The problem is that it would take many, many times the area of a car's sky-facing surfaces covered in solar panels to generate enough energy to recharge an electric car's battery pack, even under ideal circumstances.