Congressional Research Service: Petroleum and its role in the U.S. economy


According to a 2012 report from the Congressional Research Service, “U.S. Energy: Overview and Key Statistics,” petroleum accounts for 40% of all U.S. energy consumption. As of 2010, petroleum was predominantly used for transportation (70.5%), followed by industrial (22.9%), residential (5.7%) and electricity generation (0.9%) uses.

The report brings together information from a range of recent government documents, including the “March 2012: Monthly Energy Review,” from the Department of Energy; “Annual Energy Review, 2010” (PDF), from the Energy Information Administration; and “Light-Duty Automotive Technology, Carbon Dioxide Emissions, and Fuel Economy Trends,” from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The findings cover petroleum production and consumption, with breakdowns for industrial and consumer use of oil.

  • Petroleum accounts for 40% of all U.S. energy consumption. While this is a decline from the 45% oil provided in 1975, it remains the single most important source of energy. In 2010 petroleum was predominantly used for transportation (70.5%), followed by industrial (22.9%), residential (5.7%) and electricity generation (0.9%) uses.
  • Oil imports topped out at 60% of consumption in 2005 and have since declined to 45.1% in 2011. The drop was a consequence of decreased consumption following the 2008 financial crisis, modest gains in fuel economy and increased domestic production of energy.
  • In 1950 the average U.S. retail price per gallon of gasoline was 26.8 cents. By 2000, it had risen $1.51 a gallon, an increase of 463%. However, adjusted for inflation, the price of gasoline in 1950 was the equivalent of $1.83 a gallon, and in 2001, $1.24. Thus in real terms, the price of gasoline dropped 32% per gallon between 1950 and 2000.
  • Between 1950 and 2001 the highest cost of gas occurred in 1981, with an inflation-adjusted price of $2.64 per gallon, but by 1984 it had returned to the level a decade earlier. Gas prices stayed relatively stable in real terms until 2002, rose to a peak of $3.01 in 2008 and then declined to $2.79 in 2010.
  • U.S. consumption of gasoline peaked in July 2007 at 9.25 million barrels per day. Since then it has declined slightly, falling to 8.75 million barrels per day in July 2011, a drop of 5%.
  • Between 1988 and 2003 the average fuel economy of U.S. light vehicles declined, largely because of increased weight and performance, and the growing proportion of SUVs and trucks on the road. By 2003, nearly half of all vehicles sold in the U.S. were SUVs, pickups, and vans, more than twice their market share 20 years earlier. After 2005 the average fuel economy of the U.S. fleet began to improve slightly as higher fuel economy standards for light trucks were enacted.

For an overview and detailed information on energy in the United States, see “U.S. Energy: Overview and Key Statistics”; “Renewable Energy in the United States”; and “Electrical Generation and Consumption in the United States.”

Related resource: The Energy Information Administration’s “Annual Energy Outlook 2011,” projects energy trends out to 2035.

Keywords: cars, fossil fuels, pollution

    Writer: | Last updated: May 17, 2012


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