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.
In contrast to EIA's projected 11% increase in US petroleum consumption by 2035 is the projection of Cambridge Energy Research Associates that US gasoline consumption will decrease at least 20% by 2030. Other government and industry officials, including the CEO of EXxon-Mobil, agree. AP has the story here.
Exxon Mobil's latest long-term forecast projects (at 18) a 20% overall decline in US passenger car gasoline consumption by 2030--even with more people and more cars--because of increasing fuel efficiency.
The steep decline in per-capita crude oil consumption from 1978 to 1983 was primarily due to reduced consumption in the residential/commercial, industrial, and utility sectors, as is clearly shown by the following graph from EIA. Clearly, those declines were not due to gasoline prices. There were a lot of new regulations in those days mandating energy efficiency and forcing a phase-out of petroleum fuels for electricity generation. During these five or six years the non-transportation uses of petroleum shrank from 47% of total consumption to 38% (and are now down to 36%).