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Targeting Our Efforts to Reduce National Oil Addiction

Deron Lovaas

Posted September 27, 2012

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***NOTE*** The map and table below are based on the average fuel economy standard from 2011. NRDC has created two new maps and a table using data reflecting on-road conditions which is also worth a look. Click here to see them. Thanks! - Deron

Overdependence on oil, especially in transportation, remains a threat to America in spite of increasing vehicle fuel-efficiency and domestic production. As a country, we spend a huge amount of money on gasoline, with much of that money leaving the country.  And swinging oil prices exacerbate the pain we feel at the pump. It seems every year there’s oil price volatility. When people drive to work and oil prices unexpectedly shoot up, they can then feel trapped between the need to commute and run errands in the face of high oil prices.

America buys 18.8 million barrels of petroleum products every day, accounting for more than 20% of all global usage. This can drain roughly $1 billion on average every day out of the economy. This oil use also accounts for more than a quarter of the heat-trapping carbon pollution emitted by various sources in the U.S.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters developed an interest in a more detailed understanding for the causes of our addiction. Specifically, we were curious about which geographic areas were most oil dependent, and thus, driving the country's oil addiction the most.

First, we looked at all the total 2010 oil consumption in every county in the United States. We visualized that oil consumption in the map below.

gasoline consumption map.JPG

We can determine the nation’s oil addiction “hot spots” based on the figures plotted in the map above. It turns out a disproportionately small number of counties in metropolitan regions drive the nation's oil use. In fact, just 108 counties out of the nation's 3,144, or about 3.5% of the total consume more than 10% of the nation's oil. This suggests that we should target policies and practices aimed at reducing oil dependence to a small geographic portion of the nation.

Consumption per person in these top oil-guzzling counties can give help further with targeting; those counties with high per-capita consumption levels afford the biggest opportunities for reductions. For example, Los Angeles County’s population is much larger than Dallas County’s, on average each person consumed much less in the former. If the per capita consumption in the latter were halved, while still higher than the average Los Angeleno it could save more than a half-million gallons of gasoline a year! 

Top 10 Counties Driving Our Oil Addiction

RankingofCounties.JPG*Note: The Missouri figures stood out as an outlier in the data set, possibly due to poor or inconsistent reporting so both on the map and in this table the numbers should be taken with a giant grain of salt.

On the other hand the Houston area and Dallas area are particularly addicted to oil, both in total and per person use. To find out more about where your county stacks up in this picture, click here to access and use a cool googlemap designed by friends at the Sierra Club.

So what do we do with this information, other than generally targeting advocacy and education for reduced oil use to those counties that stand out as hot spots in absolute and per-capita terms?

  • We must improve access to existing transit systems. We can make existing transportation systems more effective and fair. Unfortunately, in the US, having a transit system and having access to that system are not the same. The Brookings Institution studies most populated metropolitan regions in the country; 30% of people in counties making up such regions or nearly 60 million people can’t access their public transportation systems. It is too far, inconvenient or impossible for them to make transit a viable option. For example, a transit stop may be designed without adequate pedestrian or bikeable or walkable access due to dangerous road crossings or a lack of sidewalks. In the Midwest and Southern regions of the US, this percentage is worse, at 36% and 45% respectively. Lacking access to transit also has a financial impact. Those without access spent, on average, 28% more on transportation than those with transit access. This is roughly $500 per year. If elevated and volatile oil prices continue to be the norm, lack of options can be a serious burden.
  • Increase the transportation choices people have. Particularly with the rapid fluctuations in oil prices, people increasingly need transportation choices to avoid being trapped in driving even if prices rise. A recent NRDC-commissioned national poll shows how badly we are falling short of delivering transportation choices to consumers. 58 % would like to use public transportation more often, but it is not convenient or available from their home or work, and only one-third would give availability of public transportation an A or B grade. We can, and must, do better.
  • Upgrade fuel efficiency for drivers. Cars that require less oil to go the same distance will both lessen the burden of oil on American wallets as well as reduce the risk of rapid price changes. And I can end on a high note with this recommendation. The Obama Administration took the biggest single step towards vehicle fuel-efficiency in U.S. history this year. It set a fuel-economy and carbon pollution bar from our car and truck fleet of 54.5 miles-per-gallon for new vehicles by 2025. Thanks to this leap forward in vehicle technology in just a couple of decades we will be saving millions of barrel daily, cutting heat-trapping pollution by hundreds of millions of tons and keeping thousands of dollars each of would instead have poured into gasoline pumps.

The simple truth is that more fuel-efficiency and more public transportation can help us break our oil addiction for good. Let’s get to work.

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Meeky BlizzardSep 28 2012 01:26 PM

Glad to have the per capita figures - but the link to your methodology doesn't work. Does this include just transportation uses, or industrial and ag as well?

AndrewSep 28 2012 06:13 PM

The Missouri (St. Louis) figure may not be an outlier. Missouri fuel taxes are 6th lowest in the nation...Illinois' are 5th highest. With a $0.22/gallon difference in taxes, some cross-border purchases seem likely. The St. Louis figure may also be capturing non-resident fuel purchases.

Brady ZiemanSep 29 2012 08:22 AM

Um... Does anybody else see that this is essentially a map of population density? Of course cities, where there are the largest concentration of people, are going to have the highest levels of fuel usage when the data is aggregated at the county level. Examining per capita usage among all residents eligible to drive is far more interesting.

You touch on this briefly, and while the dynamics of per capita fuel usage are highly influenced by local variability, areas with the highest per capita fuel consumption will tend to provide the greatest benefit at the least cost once a proper population density threshold is established (I.e. rural areas will usually show lower aggregate fuel use reductions than cities due to lower population densities, as your map shows).

Ultimately, for this in to be of real value, it needs to depict the per capita fuel usage, so that any interventions proposed might be targeted to where they can gave the greatest impact.

Alo, create more fuel usage strata, particularly among high oil use areas so that all suburbs aren't simply orange, and all cities red. There are differences between them, even in aggregate, these differences just don't come across in your map

JoeOct 1 2012 01:25 PM

This whole story is vague, especially with no indicators of industrial or farm use, how much mass transit burns or what kind, or the amounts of oil or gas specifics. Which is it? Oil or gas usage? How much does natural gas reduce oil consumption and in what areas? How about west Texas, which has more wind mills producing power instead of just on oil or nat gas? This really doesn't tell us anything except where there are more people, they buy more gas because they have more cars and trucks...nor does it specify what kind of effort to reduce oil (gas) comsumption is being addressed. How would that be done? Yeah trains and buses take more cars off the what? Millions of cars and trucks a day are sold to buyers.

SunnyOct 1 2012 02:09 PM

Per capita oil use really needs to be the focus. Of course higher numbers of people are going to use greater amounts of oil. Divide total gallons over total population...then we have a start at a real conversation.

Deron LovaasOct 1 2012 02:28 PM

I'm grateful for all the interest in this post! First, regarding what this covers -- the single biggest use of oil in this country, namely for gasoline mainly for our fleet of light-duty vehicles (as well as smaller users such as lawn mowers).

I agree that it would be useful to get a sub-county level view of consumption, but this is as granular as the national data sets available get.

Last but not least is the question of per capita consumption. I think this is the next step for this targeting. We did actually generate a map showing per capita consumption but the overwhelming focus on rural and exurban counties, and the fact that some of that was due to through-traffic as opposed to driving done by actual county residents led us to leave that on the cutting room floor.

Looking at absolute numbers is an important first step to harvesting gasoline consumption reductions, since they are by far the biggest fruit on the tree (the also happen to be in areas where public transportation alternatives are most viable as opposed to more spread-out developments). And then within that set it makes a lot of sense to rank counties based on per capita consumption since those are probablly the low-hanging fruit we should prioritize for action first.

I will work on that next, and invite others to do so as well.

Comments are closed for this post.


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