Steven Kopits has a guest post at Econbrowser arguing that China's oil demand will rise much faster than the EIA is expecting in the International Energy Outlook. In particular, he takes the historical oil consumption of Japan and Korea as analogies and assumes that Chinese oil consumption per capita rises as much as those countries during the period that their middle classes got cars. In that case, he gets this picture:
Michael Levi, writing a newish blog at the Council for Foreign Relations, disputes this. He points out that it in all three countries, transportation make up only a small fraction of oil supply (much less than in the US), and it might be expected that oil usage in the industrial and electrical sectors will be much more elastic in an era of high oil prices than transportation usage. Therefore, extrapolating Japanese and Korean experiences from the past will seriously overestimate future Chinese oil demand growth.
To assess this a little more closely, it's worth noting that the EIA's reference case scenario these days involves fairly high future oil prices:
Oil prices grow to cross $100 in 2017, and then grow more gradually above that afterwards. Since we have some experience in recent years with oil prices in the range of $60-$100, we can see how Chinese oil growth was affected by them (data from BP):
As you can see, in the last few years when prices have been $60 or above, Chinese oil consumption has grown in the 4%-7% range, annually. Clearly the price spike suppressed growth, but not down below 3%.
So I guess I come down in the middle of this debate. I agree with Michael that the very straightforward analogy to Japan and Korea that Steven is using seems likely to be oversimplified and exaggerated in a world of high oil prices. At the same time, I'm with Steven that the EIA must be underestimating: it's hard to see how a growth rate of 2.7%/ year can be consistent with both the recent performance of the Chinese economy and the EIA's reference price case.
Probably, either prices will be higher, or Chinese oil consumption growth will be faster than the EIA is thinking.