The world may have to live on a lot less Saudi Arabian crude towards the end of this decade as rampant internal demand eats into oil exports and the kingdom's alternative energy plans may prove too little too late.
The top crude exporter is already burning more than 10 percent of its output in power plants on hot summer days. Meanwhile huge fuel subsidies, which have helped sedate Saudi social unrest throughout the Arab Spring, are exacerbating a demand boom that is lapping up the world's largest oil reserves.
Faced with ever increasing quantities of its biggest export earner being consumed at home, Riyadh is banking on a massive nuclear plant building programme to drastically reduce oil use from around 2020, with solar power bridging the gap.
But that may not be quick enough to avert a supply crunch by the end of the decade for a world economy still hooked on abundant Saudi crude.
"Domestic consumption has been growing very fast as a result of rapid demographics, steady economic growth and heavy subsidies, with the latter leading to excess demand," said Ali Aissaooui, head of economic research at Arab Petroleum Investments Corporation in Saudi Arabia.
"With the ongoing turmoil in parts of the region, social demands are featuring prominently on top of governments' policy agenda. In this context phasing out subsidies to rein in excess demand growth has become extremely tricky," he said.
"Excess demand could affect the capacity of some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, to maintain the spare capacity needed to provide flexibility to the global oil market."
Thanks to huge subsidies, which the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned last week encourage waste, Saudi energy demand has been growing much faster than its non-oil economy in the last few years, while the rest of the world has become more efficient in its energy use.
According to analysts at Riyadh-based Jadwa Investment, oil demand in the kingdom rose by 22 percent between 2007 and 2010, out pacing the Chinese oil demand growth rate despite China's economy expanding almost three times faster.
Official data shows Saudi oil consumption rose by more than 5 percent a year from 2003-2010 to an average of 2.4 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2010. BP statistics put it closer to 2.8 million bpd last year, up 7.1 percent from 2009.
The head of state oil firm Saudi Aramco admitted last year that unless internal demand is controlled the amount of oil left for export could fall by 3 million bpd to less than 7 million bpd by 2028.
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But Jadwa expects exports to fall far more dramatically, with less than 5 million bpd escaping onto the global market by 2020, thanks to a 60-percent surge in internal demand to nearly 4 million bpd and barely enough new production to offset declines from older fields.
A simultaneous subsidy-driven fuel demand boom and natural gas shortage could see oil consumption hit 6.5 million barrels per day (bpd) by 2030, or over half Saudi's current production capacity, according to a report by Jadwa published in July.
"The kingdom is likely to experience only a very gradual increase in production of crude oil... Based on current plans we do not expect an increase in overall production capacity for at least five years," analysts at an investment company set up by Saudi royalty said.
"The country's domestic consumption of energy, especially oil, at very cheap prices, is also likely to rise rapidly, sharply reducing the amount of oil available for export."
The IEA estimates Saudi Arabia will burn an average of 582,000 bpd of oil this year - three times as many barrels as in 2007 - to meet rising electricity demand as its modest gas supplies are channelled to other industries.
Some analysts say Saudi power sector oil use already far exceeds a million barrels on hot days and that it will keep rising unless the kingdom finds much more gas or lifts a gas import ban.
New gas fields due onstream over the next few years should help temper oil burning in the power sector a little. But gas prices fixed at a fraction of international levels are both driving up industrial use rapidly while discouraging new gas finds needed to meet future demand.
Instead, Riyadh hopes one of the world's most ambitious nuclear power programmes, which could see 16 reactors built by 2030 and the first online around 2020, will slash oil burning and maintain oil export revenues.
"Saudi Arabia will be able to fuel the growth of its burgeoning economy without significantly reducing its oil exporting capability," Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal said in a speech in Madrid in late September.
"Solar energy will fill the gap in the short term ... and within a decade, plans call for nuclear power to play the leading role."
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But Saudi solar power progress has been glacial, amounting to less than 100 megawatts (MW) installed since 2009, compared to more than 13,000 MW built in Germany, despite an abundance of space, sun and funds.
And while the high cost of building nuclear plants should be no issue for a country burning several billion dollars worth of potential oil exports each summer in power plants, the lack of any deals to build a single reactor means there is little chance of the notoriously slow projects replacing oil much before 2020.
"I think solar energy will not make a big difference in the region's energy balance," Aissaooui said.
"As for nuclear ... it will be slow to start. In any case, it's a complex process, with long lead times."
Shrinking Saudi spare capacity may be the single biggest concern for oil supplies but it is only part of a wider boom in Middle East energy demand.
"The Middle East is not only the largest regional exporter of crude oil but also an increasingly significant consumer of oil and oil products," Riyadh-based HSBC bank analyst John Tottie said in a report.
"Demand has increased 4.1 percent each year since 1990, ahead of even the 3.5 percent growth rate in Asian demand, which includes the well-publicised China story."
HSBC notes that while average global energy use per unit of gross domestic product fell by around 5.6 percent from 1995 to 2010 it has surged by about a third in Saudi Arabia, where industrial users get oil and gas from Saudi Aramco at much less than a tenth of current international prices.
In a region where it is not unusual for people to leave their gas-guzzling engines running to keep cars cool while they shop because fuel is so cheap, per capita fuel use is understandably high and rising.
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Saudi gasoline consumption rarely exceeded 250,000 bpd until 2007, but has remained above 350,000 bpd of for most of 2011 after breaking through the 300,000 level for the first time in 2010, according to government data.
"Internal demand is rising very fast... And it's still accelerating," Herman Franssen, director of the Energy Intelligence Group, told a conference in Dubai last week.
"If you want more (oil) exports demand has to be controlled more than it has been so far."
Gasoline retails at Saudi filling stations at an average price of $0.53 per gallon, equivalent to $22.3 per barrel, but industrial consumers pay far less, with Saudi Electricity paying $2.7-4.3 per barrel compared to export prices of around $100.
Jadwa notes that the government made some progress when it raised electricity tariffs for industrial users in mid 2010. But the last change in petrol pump prices was a price cut in 2006 and there seems little prospect of Riyadh reversing it.
"No way will Saudi slash fuel subsidies anytime soon. Suggesting they must do it ignores the fact that they also must not do it to ensure continued support of the regime and to keep unrest at a minimum," Jamie Webster, Saudi energy analyst at PFC in Washington, said.
"There is not much use in ensuring you have adequate exports if the method to get there puts your existence into potential jeopardy."For all the latest energy and oil news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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