HOUSTON—The oncoming trends of an expanding electric vehicle fleet, emergence of renewable fuels and political moves toward elimination of internal combustion engine-powered cars could easily prompt a rather existential question from the oil and gas industry: Will we ever stop using fossil fuels?

Short answer: no.

The answer to that question, which is the title of a 2016 Journal of Economic Perspectives paper by Thomas Covert and Michael Greenstone of the University of Chicago, and Christopher R. Knittel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), derives from both the reliable supply of fossil fuels as well as an unreliable pace of demand.

“Every year we seem to have 50 years’ worth of oil and 50 years’ worth of natural gas available to us,” Knittel said on a panel at the recent “A Sector in transition: transportation in the 21st century,” co-sponsored by MIT and Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “And we have 100 years of coal. So there’s no evidence that we’re going to run out of oil or natural gas or certainly coal any time soon.”

But we might run out of demand, he said.

Andrew Slaughter, Deloitte That could be accelerated by a rapid adoption of electric vehicles and subsequent decline of internal combustion engines in transportation, which is being examined by several countries. A number of factors will determine how and how quickly things change, as listed by Andrew Slaughter, executive director of the Deloitte Center for Energy Solutions:

  • Maturing powertrain technologies: advances in battery and fuel-cell electric vehicles offer higher energy efficiency, lower emissions, greater energy diversity and new vehicle designs;
  • Lightweight materials: Stronger and lighter materials reduce vehicle weight without compromising passenger safety and reduce strain on the power system, but the challenge will be to convince consumers that a lighter vehicle is just as safe as a heavier one;
  • Advances in connectivity: this includes satellite navigation, tracking vehicles on the road and vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity, but it comes with concerns about cyberthreats;
  • Shifts in mobility preferences: will people stop buying cars and completely move to the Uber model of pay-as-you-go?; and
  • Emergence of autonomous vehicles: in this scenario, people will spend their car time working or sleeping instead of driving, and will be able to send their vehicles on errands, like picking up a child from school.

How soon can we expect these trends to be upon us?

“We don’t know,” said Slaughter. “The truth is, we see these trends accelerating. Can they accelerate fast enough to totally disrupt the industry in 10 to 15 years?”

As unrealistic as that may sound, in fact, it’s already happened in the transportation space. The U.S. made a rapid shift from the horse-and-buggy economy in the 1890s to the motorized economy of the 1910s. It is difficult to tell if that kind of transformation could happen with electric vehicles, Slaughter said

Christopher Knittel, MIT The answer will likely come in the form that it usually does: economics. When electric cars make more economic sense than gasoline-powered, people will be inclined to switch. That hasn’t happened yet.

Knittel made a straight-up comparison of an internal combustion engine vehicle with an electric vehicle.

“If oil is $55 [per barrel], you need batteries to cost $72 a kilowatt hour for these two cars to cost the same,” he said. Tesla founder Elon Musk claims that he is able to build and sell car batteries at what is estimated at $150 per kilowatt hour, but Knittel said his sources in the industry think it’s closer to $200.

“So at $200 a kilowatt hour, you need oil to be about $200 a barrel for those two cars to cost the same,” he said. “We are not there.”

Knittel did not discount the possibility of major strides in battery technology in the next few years, but absent that, he thinks hybrids are a better bet because the combination of an internal combustion engine with an electric motor will help alleviate the “range anxiety” inherent with driving a car only able to travel 250 miles on a charge.

The price differential is significant. An electric vehicle battery could cost as much as $15,000, whereas a hybrid’s battery would only set you back $2,000. And while an electric vehicle’s maintenance cost is much lower than that of a gasoline-powered car, that advantage is offset by the high cost of disposing of the battery at the end of the car’s life.

“The beauty of electric vehicles is the instant torque,” said Knittel. “They are fun to drive and certainly exciting. Whether they can compete with the internal combustion engine for the everyday buyer is a different story.”

Joseph Markman can be reached at jmarkman@hartenergy.com and @JHMarkman.