Ah, petroleum -- used in everything from lipstick and lubricants to motor oil and medications, oil is one product the world just can't seem to get enough of. The United States especially, which consumes roughly 21 million barrels of the stuff a day, has quite an attachment to this ubiquitous product [source: EIA]. And while oil can be refined into a variety of products, Americans seem to prefer theirs in the form of gasoline. In fact, the United States consumes more gasoline than South America, Europe, Africa and Asia combined [source: EIA].
So what's with the United States and its gasoholic tendencies? Is the country truly addicted to gasoline, and if so, what factors led it to get hooked?
While the United States obviously has quite a fixation with the amber liquid, its fondness for gasoline probably doesn't fit the official criteria for an addiction. Rather, the affinity is more like a bad habit spurred on by a number of government policies put into place over the years. Combine a relatively wealthy nation with low fuel taxes, low fuel efficiency requirements and a poor public transportation system, and you have the perfect climate for a gasoline obsession.
As opposed to other countries like Denmark, where high purchase taxes on cars can deter driving, the United States has few roadblocks to impede their gas-guzzling ways. Quite the opposite, in fact -- with a vast road system crisscrossing the country and relatively cheap fill-up stations every few miles, what are American citizens to do? Why, drive of course! And drive they do, as there are more than 244 million vehicles roaming U.S. highways -- 755 cars for every 1,000 people [source: DOT, Pentland].
Lots of cars don't automatically equal high gasoline consumption though. Consider Portugal, which has 773 cars for every 1,000 people, yet consumed less than 45,000 barrels of gasoline a day in 2004 [source: Pentland, EIA]. True, the United States is much larger than Portugal, but that's not the only reason its gasoline consumption far outpaces every other nation. Despite the fact that Americans now own fewer vehicles than they used to, the vehicles they do own travel farther and require more gasoline than those of any other industrialized nation [source: Pentland].
Why the discrepancies? Keep reading to find out.
Appetite for Gasoline
While the unprecedented price of $4 per gallon of gasoline may have come as a shock to Americans during the summer of 2008, citizens in other countries have been paying at least that much for years. Across Europe, high fuel taxes equate to gasoline prices regularly in the range of $8 per gallon [source: Hargreaves]. In the United States, where the average gas tax in July 2008 was $0.49 per gallon, lower prices have encouraged a range of habits that have simply exacerbated gasoline consumption [source: Energy API].
While Europeans were gravitating toward smaller, more efficient cars to save money at the pump, their American counterparts were ogling gargantuan SUVs. Stemming from consumer demand as well as government requirements to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and make cars more efficient, the average vehicle in Europe gets more than 32 miles (51 kilometers) per gallon. In the United States, though, a similar-size car doesn't even manage 22 mpg (35 kpg) [source: Ford]. Why the discrepancy? Perhaps because fuel efficiency standards in the United States were largely ignored from 1985 to 2005. If those standards had instead been raised as little as 0.4 miles (0.6 kilometers) per year, the United States could possibly have saved about 3.3 million barrels of oil a day [source: Baker and Szembrot].
The demand for fuel efficiency in Europe also creates a better market for diesel cars, further lessening the area's reliance on gas. Only 4 percent of the cars in the United States run on diesel; in Europe the percentage is 10 times higher. Again, Americans can lay some of the blame for that on their government, which discourages the more fuel-efficient diesel cars by taxing this fuel more heavily [source: Ford].
The United States' appetite for gasoline can't solely be attributed to the large number of inefficient cars on the road. As you learned on the previous page, those cars drive an awful lot of miles -- an awful lot being 7 billion miles (11.3 billion kilometers) every day [source: EIA]. Part of that long commute can be traced to personal choice -- with access to historically low gas prices, Americans saw no need to live near the city center to save energy like people in some other countries do. Instead, they packed up and headed out to the suburbs.
The other side of that coin is the government's inability to fund public transportation projects adequately. Whereas new highway construction receives an ample 80 percent of federal funding, new public transportation projects receive just 50 percent. In 2009, the proposed U.S. budget would cut $202 million from transit spending and transfer $3.2 billion from funds dedicated to transit. These cuts come despite an estimate from the Treasury Department that the Highway Trust Fund and the Mass Transit Account will both face massive deficits in 2009 and 2010 respectively [source: PIRG].
Meanwhile, the governments of other nations throughout Europe and Japan and China have avidly supported transportation alternatives like high-speed rail. Better public transportation options combined with more compact cities equals less gasoline consumption. In Paris, people complete almost half of their trips without cars; in the United States, that number is closer to 20 percent [source: Ford].
But times, they are a-changin'. After years of rampant gasoline consumption, Americans could be ready to call it quits and break the addiction.
Kick the Gasoline Habit
Americans have made several attempts to kick the gasoline habit cold turkey, but every time, their thirst for fuel wins out. The country's gasoline consumption abated during recessions in 1975, 1980 and 1990, only to resume an aggressive climb once the economy improved. However, many experts now believe the most recent decline in consumption -- the largest sustained drop in 16 years -- could be here to stay [source: Campoy].
Due to record high gasoline prices in the summer of 2008, Americans made big changes to cut back their fuel consumption. They drove 9.6 billion miles (15.4 billion kilometers) less in May than compared with the year before, and their gasoline consumption in July 2008 was 3.6 percent lower than last year's level [source: Mouawad].
If high gasoline prices were the only player in this game, those gains would probably follow the trend of past successes and simply rebound. This time, though, the high gas prices were compounded by a weak housing market and an even weaker economy, where prices for all consumer goods were up 4.3 percent from a year before -- a 16-year high. According to the Energy Information Administration, every 1 percent decrease in personal income leads to a 0.5 percent reduction in gasoline consumption [source: Campoy].
The double whammy of high gas prices and a weak consumer market seems to have forced Americans to do more than just scale back their driving. Americans appear to have made changes that will have a lasting impact even if fuel prices drop back down. They've started buying smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, and they've traded their houses out in the suburbs for homes more convenient to where they work. The government has even gotten on board to some degree by enforcing more rigorous fuel-efficiency standards and offering subsidies on some hybrid vehicles. In January 2008, sales of large cars were down 26.5 percent from last year, while small-car and crossover vehicle sales were up 6.5 percent and 15.1 percent, respectively [source: Campoy].
Although most Americans would probably agree that coping with high gas prices hasn't been pleasant, perhaps it has at least given the atmosphere somewhat of a reprieve. U.S. transportation accounts for an entire third of its CO2 emissions and produces more of these emissions than any other nation, barring China [source: Greene]. While regular smog alerts and threats of global warming fail to generate much action, $4 per gallon at the pumps seems to do the trick. If the rest of the world has learned anything from watching the United States cope with its ballooning gas prices, it's that to get its stubborn citizens to change, one may have to resort to the old adage of "no pain, no gain."
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Baker, Dean, and Nichole Szembrot. "Offshore Drilling and Energy Conservation: The Relative Impact on Gas Prices." Center for Economic and Policy Research. June 2008.http://www.cepr.net/documents/publications/offshore_drilling_2008_06.pdf
- Campoy, Ana. "Americans Start to Curb Their Thirst For Gasoline." Wall Street Journal. March 3, 2008.
- Ford, Peter. "Gas prices too high? Try Europe." The Christian Science Monitor. Aug. 25, 2005. (Aug. 6, 2008)http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0826/p01s03-woeu.htm
- Greene, David L., and Andreas Schafer. "Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions From U.S. Transportation." Pew Center on Global Climate Change. May 2003. (Aug. 6, 2008)http://www.pewclimate.org/docUploads/ustransp.pdf
- Hargreaves, Steve. "U.S. gas: So cheap it hurts." CNNMoney.com. July 15, 2008. (August 6, 2008)http://money.cnn.com/2008/05/01/news/international/usgas_price/?postversion=2 008050109
- "Highway Statistics 2006." U.S. Department of Transportation: Federal Highway Administration. December 2007. (Aug. 8, 2008)http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policy/ohim/hs06/htm/mv1.htm
- "Motor Fuel Taxes." Energy API. July 24, 2008. (Aug. 6, 2008)http://www.api.org/statistics/fueltaxes/
- Mouawad, Jad. "Energy Prices Are Bright Sliver in Grim Economy." The New York Times. July 30, 2008. (Aug. 6, 2008)http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/30/business/30crude.html?_r=1&em&ex=1217 563200&en=9f7c5342a8a21055&ei=5087%0A&oref=slogin
- Mufson, Steve. "U.S. Gasoline Demand is: a) Down b) Up." Washington Post.com. May 7, 2008. (Aug. 6, 2008)http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/postglobal/energywire/2008/05/us_gasoline_demand_is_a_down_b.html
- Pentland, William. "The World's Top Car-Owning Countries." Forbes. July 31, 2008. (Aug. 8, 2008)http://in.news.yahoo.com/240/20080731/1301/twl-5270895.html
- "Petroleum Basic Statistics." Energy Information Administration. July 2008. (August 6, 2008)http://www.eia.doe.gov/basics/quickoil.html
- Rosenthal, Elisabeth. "Car Boom Puts Europe on Road to a Smoggy Future." The New York Times. Jan. 7, 2007. (Aug. 6, 2008)http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/07/world/europe/07cars.html?_r=2&pagewante d=1&oref=slogin
- "Washington, D.C.: Bush Transportation Budget Moves in Wrong Direction, Hides Problems." U.S. PIRG. Feb. 6, 2008. (Aug. 6, 2008)http://www.uspirg.org/news-releases/transportation-news/transportation- news/washington-d_c_-bush-transportation-budget-moves-in-wrong-direction-hides-problems
- "Where Does My Gasoline Come From?" Energy Information Administration. April 2008. (Aug. 6, 2008)http://www.eia.doe.gov/bookshelf/brochures/gasoline/index.html
- "World Apparent Consumption of Refined Petroleum Products, 2004." Energy Information Administration. International Energy Annual 2005. Aug. 6, 2007. (Aug. 6, 2008)http://www.eia.doe.gov/pub/international/iea2005/table35.xls