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Chart In Focus

Americans Really Are Using Less Gas

Chart In Focus
October 05, 2012

The call to conserve resources and use less gasoline has been around for years.  So it is interesting to get to see the actual data, and find out that we are using less.

This week's chart looks at the raw monthly numbers for total gasoline consumption in the United States.  You can clearly see the strong seasonality effect of gasoline use rising in the summer months and waning in the winter.  So to visualize the longer term trend, you need to somehow see through the sawtooth pattern to examine what the numbers are doing over time. 

The highest single month number was 399 million gallons per day back in August 2005, when the housing boom was at its peak, and when unemployment was down at 4.9%.  The collapse of the housing bubble and the associated economic slowdown has assuredly contributed to the drop-off in gasoline usage since then.  The July 2012 number was 353 million, which is down 11% from that 2005 peak. 

Another contributor to the decline in usage is the high price of crude oil, which gives motorists additional encouragement to find ways to consume less.  More fuel efficient cars, more telecommuting, and even the re-introduction of electric cars (after a 90-year absence) have all contributed to reducing total gasoline consumption. 

If we look at the per capita consumption of gasoline in the U.S., the picture gets even more interesting.

Gas Consumption Per Capita

This chart reveals that per capita consumption actually peaked all the way back in 1990, and thus a big part of the growth in total consumption toward that 2005 peak was a result of population growth.  The Department of Energy data on gasoline use only goes back to 1983, so we cannot easily model this data over the entire history of the automobile.  But since the 1990 peak in 12-month moving average of per capita consumption, we have seen a 15% drop in the average amount of gasoline that each person uses.

From an environmental and trade balance perspective, that's a good thing and worth celebrating.  But to put it into larger context, we should remember that the U.S. is still importing 59% of all the crude oil that it uses.  Domestic production is up nicely, to its highest level since 1999.  And oil imports are falling, both in gross terms and as a percentage of what we use.

But for the U.S. to be completely self-sufficient for gasoline, with no imports at all, we would either need to increase domestic oil production by 145% from these already higher levels, or drop our per capita gasoline consumption from 1.12 gallons a day to only 0.46 gallons per person per day.  Or we could do some combination of both increased production and reduced consumption.

The point is, though, that while we are moving in a good direction in terms of getting back to self-sufficiency, we still have a really long way to go. 

Tom McClellan
Editor, The McClellan Market Report

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