U.S. Gasoline Use Declining, Tar Sands Pipeline Isn't Needed

by Lester Brown

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 US 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% 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 1994-2007, 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 in car sales is likely to continue partially because economic prospects have dimmed and because we are still urbanizing. Today 82% of us live in urban areas where cars are becoming less essential.

On top of urbanization, we also see changes in how 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.
 
Today’s teenagers, most of whom are growing 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 becoming pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, with ready access to public transit.
 
Many cities are building a cycling infrastructure of bicycle trails, dedicated bike lanes, and bike racks for parking. Bike-sharing programs are showing up, too. In Washington, D.C., the Capital Bikeshare program that began in 2010 has expanded to 116 stations with 1,100 bicycles. Within the first year, some 16,000 riders signed up for annual membership in the program. Denver and Chicago have similar bike share programs. And New York City is about to launch a huge program of its own.

Gasoline use is also falling due to the decline in miles driven per car. This is partly in response to economic uncertainty and the high price of gasoline. When gas costs nearly $4 a gallon, people think twice before jumping in a car and using a gallon of gasoline to pick up a half-gallon of milk.
 
A third trend that is reducing gasoline use is the rising fuel efficiency of the U.S. automobile fleet. New cars sold in 2008 averaged 27 miles per gallon (mpg). In early 2009, President Obama raised the average fuel efficiency standard so that those sold in 2016 will get 36 mpg. This year, he announced those standards will rise to 54 mpg by 2025, and announced the first standards for buses and trucks.

For example, in the first half of 2011, Californians used almost 7.3 billion gallons of gasoline, down 1.7% from the same period last year and off 3.5% from the first half of 2002, reports the Los Angeles Times. And that’s despite adding 8.3% more drivers since 2002.

Some of the decline in gasoline consumption is tied to the severity of the recession, the tepid recovery and the high price of fuel. Something else has changed too – the increase in hybrid and electric vehicles. In 2002, there were no hybrids available and only 3,461 electric vehicles were registered in the state. This year, the number of hybrids registered in Calfornia is approaching 400,000, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles, and the number of electric vehicle registrations is nearing 100,000. 

The game changer in reducing gasoline use is going to come as drivers shift from gasoline to electric vehicles, including plug-in hybrids and electric cars.

GM’s Chevrolet Volt and Nissan’s Leaf are on the market, and  Toyota is taking orders for the plug-in version of its Prius hybrid, the pacesetter in fuel efficiency. These will be followed by a steady flow of new plug-in hybrid and electric car models coming to market.

Although electrical vehicles are typically more costly to buy, the day-to-day cost of operating them is extraordinarily low. An analysis by Professor Michael McElroy at Harvard indicates that running a car on wind-generated electricity could cost less than the equivalent of 80-cent-a-gallon gasoline.

With the auto fleet shrinking, with the average car being driven less, with the fuel use of new cars to be cut in half by 2025, and with electricity starting to replace gasoline as a fuel, why do we need to build a pipeline to bring crude oil from Canada’s tar sands to oil refineries in Texas? The answer is we don’t.

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Lester R. Brown is president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of World on the Edge.

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