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The history of US per-capita petroleum consumption will surprise you.

I'm participating in a forum about global warming, which raises all the usual questions about how much US petroleum consumption has contributed and is contributing, whether US policies have done too little to discourage petroleum use, and whether a "carbon price" would finally fix that aspect of the global warming problem. To try to anchor that discussion in some facts, I found the following graph illustrating two facts that are counterintuitive for most of us: First, US per-capita consumption of petroleum has been very stable since 1983. Second, consumption has fluctuated only slightly with retail price changes, even the dramatic price spike of 2007 and 2008.

(Hat tip to Elliott H. Gue at Investing Daily.)  Total US petroleum consumption peaked at 18.85 million barrels per day (MMBPD) in 1978. It then declined sharply to 15.23 MMBPD under the influence of the Iranian oil embargo, CAFE standards, and a deep recession. Then total consumption rose slowly to 20.80 MMBPD in 2005 and has declined since. (Data on total consumption from EIA.) EIA estimates that US petroleum consumption will increase only 11% from 2008 to 2005 2035 [corrected 12/15/2010], which means per-capita consumption will continue to decline at a modest rate.

CBO says this projected [amended 12/17/2010] decline is due to the new CAFE standards and that a price increase of $2.00 per gallon would not further constrain consumption. To put that in political context, the President's Bowles-Simpson Deficit Commission proposed a $0.15/gallon gasoline tax increase, and the cap/trade bill that passed the House would limit the carbon price to about $25/ton of CO2, which would be only $0.25/gallon of gasoline.

In conclusion, the US has been better at managing petroleum consumption than probably most people think, and still further improvements will not be easy, cheap, or politically palatable.

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Reader Comments (4)

Can you please tell me the source of the U.s. oil consumption per capita please.

March 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJo

J, I found it at If you prefer to do the calcs yourself, crude oil consumption data is available at and census data at

March 20, 2012 | Registered CommenterSkeptic

Do you know where to find the consumption data since 1860? The EIA seems to have data only since 1960, not before.

March 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJo

Jo, sorry, I don't. BP has crude prices back to 1861 here But I don't know about production or consumption. Can you contact Elliott Gue?

March 20, 2012 | Registered CommenterSkeptic

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