Lower Gas Prices Mean Higher Carbon Emissions

In 2007, Americans started driving less, buying less gasoline, and putting less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. According to Inside Climate News, gasoline usage hit a peak that year and then shrank as much as 18% nationwide, hitting a low of 8 million barrels a day in January 2012. This reflected the enactment of strict new fuel economy standards for US vehicles, record high pump prices, and a deep recession.

Lower gas prices lead to higher carbon emissions.

There were other factors leading to lower gasoline sales, too. Those higher fuel economy standards caused manufacturers to start thinking seriously about more fuel efficient hybrid cars, younger Americans seemed less interested in owning an automobile, and Baby Boomers were driving less. With those shifts underway, climate activists hoped that US gasoline consumption would not resume its steady rise once the economy recovered.

But gas prices plummeted in the past 2 years to levels not seen since 2009. Also, the US economy has gradually improved to the point where people feel they can dump their old car with 200,000+ miles on it and get a new car or at least a newer one. Now, Americans are driving more, which means carbon emissions from automobiles are on the rise.

“In most places, gas is at the lowest prices we’ve been for 6.5 years,” said Tom Kloza, global head for energy analysis at the Oil Price Information Service, a data provider and the owner of GasBuddy.com “We’ve seen a surge in demand. This has been the first summer since the recession that the concept of a driving season has been more real than mythical.”

In California, one of the world’s largest gasoline markets, gasoline use rose 11.7% in 2014 to 14.7 billion gallons. Through the first four months of 2015, gasoline consumption is up 3.5% even though a refinery outage bumped California’s prices well above the national average. The state is on pace to use almost as much gasoline this year as it did in 2006, when it set the all-time record by guzzling 15.8 billion gallons of gasoline in 12 months.

To keep up with higher domestic demand and supply profitable export markets, US refineries are running at more than 90% capacity and gulping record amounts of crude oil — more than 17 million barrels a day, according to the Energy Information Administration. Refinery profit margins, especially in California, have soared because they are buying oil cheaply and not passing all the savings through to their gasoline and diesel customers.

With all the cheap gasoline sloshing around in their gas tanks, US motorists traveled a record 3.08 trillion miles in the 12 months that ended June 1, topping levels from the driving heydays of 2007 through mid-2008, according to data from the Federal Highway Administration. Vehicle travel was up 2.7% in May, and up 3.4% for the first five months of 2015.

After falling for 5 straight years, US carbon dioxide emissions from gasoline consumption rose 1.4%percent in 2013, followed by almost a 1% increase in 2014 to 1.07 billion metric tons, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

All that extra driving is putting more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, despite calls from climate activist to dramatically reduce emissions immediately. They say that if the Earth’s average temperature goes up more than 2° Celsius, drastic changes to weather patterns and sea levels will be inevitable. But as long as gas is cheap, the vast majority of drivers couldn’t care less.


Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.