U.S. Motor Gasoline Use Declining

The Earth Policy Institute reports that the Keystone XL pipeline is not needed due to changes in U.S. gasoline usage.


| November 22, 2011



gas pump

Gasoline consumption is decreasing as people buy smaller cars with better gas mileage.


ANNA LURYE/FOTOLIA.COM

As the debate unfolds about whether to build a 1,711-mile pipeline to carry crude oil from the tar sands in Canada to refineries in Texas, the focus is on the oil spills and carbon emissions that inevitably come with it. But we need to ask a more fundamental question. Do we really need that oil?

The United States currently consumes more gasoline than the next 16 countries combined. Yes, you read that right. Among them are China, Japan, Russia, Germany, and Brazil. (See data.)

But now this is changing. Not only is the affluence that sustained this extravagant gasoline consumption eroding, but the automobile-centered lifestyle that was considered part of the American birthright is fading as well. U.S. gasoline use has dropped 5 percent in four years.

Four key developments are set to further reduce U.S. gasoline use: a shrinking car fleet, a decline in the miles driven per car, dramatic mandated future gains in new car fuel efficiency, and the shift from gasoline to electricity to power our cars.

The U.S. fleet appears to have peaked at 250 million vehicles in 2008. From 1994 through 2007, new-car sales were in the range of 15–17 million per year. Since then they have totaled 10–13 million per year, and they are unlikely to top 14 million again. Retirees likely will exceed sales of new cars throughout this decade.The contraction that began when the fleet dropped from 250 million in 2008 to 248 million in 2010 is likely to continue. Sales of new cars are not matching those of earlier years in part because the economic prospect has dimmed and in part because we are still urbanizing. Today 82 percent of us live in urban areas where cars are becoming less essential.

On top of urbanization, we also have a change in the manner in which young people socialize. For teenagers in rural communities a half century ago, getting a driver’s license and something to drive — a car, a pickup, or even a farm truck — was a rite of passage. That’s what everyone did.
This too is changing. Today’s teenagers, most of whom grew up in an urban setting, socialize through smart phones and the Internet. For many of them, a car is of little interest. The number of licensed teenage drivers in this country — the car owners of the future — has dropped from a peak of 12 million in 1978 to 10 million today.

Cities are also being redesigned for people. Among other things, this means cities are becoming pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, with ready access to public transit.





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