Natural Gas Is a Hard Habit to Quit

Europe’s natural gas benchmark has been on a wild ride since the fall of 2021, with prices twice spiking more than ten times above last year’s spring levels. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has underlined the continent’s dependence on imported gas, and challenged its planners and politicians to consider where, how, and how quickly they might limit that dependence. Comparisons to 1970s oil-driven energy crises abound. Demand for oil and natural gas is integral to contemporary society, but that does not mean that both present the same challenges.

Consumption of both have increased significantly since the mid-1960s, but to different degrees and with different characteristics. Oil remains a bigger chunk of energy than gas, with gas only now reaching about the same amount of global energy supply as oil in the mid-1990s. Oil is more reactive to global economic activity (as we saw at the end of the first decade of the 2000s, when demand fell during the global financial crisis) and, at least historically, has been easier to withhold from global markets (as happened during the 1970s).

That said, gas consumption is growing at a much faster rate than oil consumption — about 3.4% annual growth rate since 1965, compared to oil’s 2%. Were those rates to be maintained, on an energy basis gas consumption would overtake oil consumption in the early 2040s. BloombergNEF, in its latest New Energy Outlook, projects that natural gas will be the only hydrocarbon fuel continuing to grow through mid-century without major policy interventions.

Some of the growth in gas consumption came at the expense of oil (in power generation, for instance) but much of the growth in demand came from expanding demand for heat, industry, and petrochemical uses. The U.S., in particular, uses its abundant gas supply as a petrochemical feedstock. From 2013 to 2019, power generation was the biggest source of global gas demand, but the International Energy Agency expects that in the first half of this decade, industrial uses (including petrochemicals) will be the largest source of demand.