Opinion: What Auto Sales Say About the Future of Petroleum

Despite the buzz around EVs and hybrids, consumer demand lies elsewhere: Petrowski

FRAMINGHAM, Mass. -- Legislatures love electric and hybrid vehicles. Regulators love them, and the press is fascinated by them. The only problem is that the consuming public is unconvinced, given the latest monthly and year-to-date sales figures by category.

The Ford F-series pickup truck remains the best-selling vehicle for a 33rd straight year. While passenger-car sales are down by double digits, crossover and SUV sales are up double digits. These larger vehicles have replaced the traditional four-door sedan as the family car. Nissan, led by the massive Titan truck, was up 14% year over year.

Meanwhile, Tesla has the most short sellers of any public company. Its sales were up 1%. The Toyota Prius, once the darling of the “green team,” is down 12% in sales year over year. Hybrid sales are down 9% year over year. Sales of the Ford Fusion hybrid are down 23%.

What we can conclude from these trends:

  • Those who think our current 14 million barrels per day (bpd) of petroleum-based transport fuel demand will drop to 7 million bpd or less are confusing hope with reality. A better 10-year projection is 17 million bpd of petroleum-based transport fuel.
  • It will take 10 years to reach the 1 million electric-vehicle target established by President Obama from the current fleet of 820,000. This is 13 years later than the original 2015 goal.
  • If we are truly serious about climate change, we will need to focus on natural-gas vehicles (NGV) for light trucks, vans and crossovers. Consider that increasing to 2 million NGVs from the current 250,000 would remove 40,000 tons of carbon-dioxide per year from total emissions in the United States.

In business, there are time-tested axioms like “Don’t fight the Fed” and “Don’t ignore the tape.” We can add “don’t ignore the consumer.” Americans love their large cars and love the open road—always have and always will.

Joe Petrowski is senior adviser and director of fuels for Yesway, West Des Moines, Iowa, the convenience-store unit of Brookwood Financial Partners LLC, Beverly, Mass. He is also founder of Mercantor Partners LLC, a private-equity group focused on downstream energy distribution and retail convenience, and former CEO of Cumberland Farms and Gulf Oil.

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