We’re actually at a fairly crucial decision point regarding our use of energy in the U.S. right now. Tom Friedman is discussing whether or not the U.S. should join OPEC, now that we’re bringing more oil and gas out of the ground.
But after two decades of fighting over environmental issues and global warming, the U.S. is energetically trying to lower fuel consumption, and that very much includes the gasoline at the pump.
The U.S. used about 30 quads burning liquid fuels for transportation last year. That’s almost one-third of all the energy used in the U.S. in 2011. It is also almost one-third of all fuel used for transportation in the world in 2011. That’s a lot of gasoline.
We used to be pretty good at improving gas mileage.
(Hat tip for this chart and the next to Early Warning.) In fact, from 1975 to 1990 mileage increased from 12 mpg to 18mpg. That’s the same percentage that President Obama and the EPA want us to improve by over the next 15 years. Is that realistic? The last 20 years show that we’ve only increased from 18mpg to 22 mpg, not nearly as impressive.
American vehicles are heavier and less efficient than equivalent vehicles in Europe. Europe’s fleet of cars averages 35 mpg, while America’s average is about 22 mpg. (Higher fuel prices incentivised innovation among car manufacturers and frugal prudence in European car buyers.) If we could magically raise our average mileage to European levels the amount of energy we would save would be more than 10 quads. That’s, umm, 80 billion U.S. gallons of gasoline. A year. U.S.refineries get about 19.4 gallons of gas out of a barrel of oil, so that’s 4 billion barrels a year, or 11.3 million barrels a day we wouldn’t burn. That’s how much we imported, total, in 2010.
So it’s realistic. It’s possible. And it would certainly help our balance of trade figures. And it would free up supply for the developing world, which badly needs it.
But here’s the thing. In 1975, when CAFE regulations were introduced mandating mileage improvements, mileage improved. But after the crisis, the price of oil dropped and the regulations sort of went away. Mileage stopped improving. If America is producing this oil domestically–even if prices don’t drop–will domestic energy companies resist higher mileage more strongly?
Kind of a lot more riding on this than the usual back and forth between the Energy Cowboys and the Environmental Brigades…