Global economic slowdown may stifle oil demand growth next year, the West's energy watchdog said on Wednesday, while warning that tightening supplies could still spur yet more oil price volatility.
The International Energy Agency, adviser to industrialized nations on energy policy, said that although it had not made big changes to its oil demand growth estimates for 2011 or 2012, its predictions were now at the mercy of the global economy's performance in the months to come.
"Recognizing emerging economic storm clouds, we also run a lower 3 per cent global GDP growth scenario, which more than halves base case 2012 oil demand growth to only 600,000 barrels per day (bpd)," the agency said in a monthly report.
The IEA is the last of the three top oil forecasters to publish its estimates this month.
On Tuesday, oil producing group OPEC and the U.S. government's agency, the Energy Information Administration, both revised their oil demand growth estimates on the back of a worsening economic outlook.
The reports come as grim economic news and European and U.S. debt struggles stoke fears of another global downturn, with oil prices falling around 15 per cent over the past week in a sharp worldwide flight from risk.
An increase of 600,000 bpd demand growth for 2012 would be only a fraction of its current estimates based on global GDP growth assumptions of 4.2 to 4.4 per cent for 2011-2012 and less than a quarter of very impressive growth in 2010.
"That said, our global 2011/2012 GDP growth assumption in excess of 4 per cent might seem optimistic in the present climate," said the agency, which expects the world to consume just over 91 million bpd in 2012.
Olivier Jakob from Petromatrix said he believed the presence of two scenarios in the IEA report was due to the fact the IEA was obliged to use forecasts from the International Monetary Fund even though it might not necessarily agree with them.
"The IEA is politely asking its readers to ignore its official demand forecast for 2012 and guess their own between the official and the alternative scenario," said Mr. Jakob.
The IEA was not immediate available for further comment.
The IEA has long said its calculations show that global oil demand has historically grown at a rate of 90 per cent of the global GDP growth minus 2 percentage points. That means oil demand shows practically no growth during a year when the global economy grows by 2.5 to 3.0 per cent.
Based on current global economic forecasts, the IEA trimmed its 2011 global oil demand growth by just 60,000 barrels per day (bpd) to 1.2 million bpd, reflecting recent high oil prices and slower economic growth.
It raised its 2012 global oil demand growth forecast by 70,000 bpd to 1.61 million bpd, partly due to Japan's higher oil-fired power needs.
On Tuesday, OPEC lowered its growth forecast for next year marginally, by 20,000 bpd to 1.30 million bpd, while the EIA raised its forecast for 2012 by 60,000 bpd, with consumption now expected to climb 1.64 million bpd next year.
Despite global economic worries, the IEA said supplies remained tight, echoing opinions from OPEC and the EIA.
It said OPEC's output inched higher in July to 30.05 million bpd, close to pre-Libyan crisis levels.
But Harry Tchilinguirian from BNP Paribas noted that similar to remarks from OPEC and the U.S. government, the IEA said OPEC was still under-producing around 700,000 bpd to fill the supply gap later this year.
"So absent a further increase in production, inventories will have to be drawn or the price has to rise to ration demand," said Mr. Tchilinguirian.
The IEA said OPEC's spare capacity had shrunk to 3.3 million bpd, a level it described as "fairly meagre in comparison to the totality of currently perceived supply-side risks."
"Aside from U.K. field problems, political instability in a number of MENA and sub-Saharan African oil producers also risks curtailing supply further in the next 18 months," it said. "The big-dipper ride may still have further to run."