How much oil do we use? (4/5)

Now that we’ve covered where oil comes from, what oil is chemically, and how we refine crude, it’s time to get to the heart of the oil hype – consumption.

The cool flow diagram below shows where the USA gets oil from and where we use it.

This petroleum flow diagram shows where we get oil from and where we use it. DOE
Click this petroleum flow diagram to see where the US gets and uses oil. DOE

From this diagram we can learn quite a bit about energy in the USA:

  • The total US consumption of petroleum products is 20.7 millions barrels/day (870 million gallons/day)
  • 60% of our total petroleum use is imported. That’s approximately one half billion gallons imported every day.
  • 69% of this total consumption is used for transportation. This includes a lot of things:
    • household driving (to the nearby park, work, grocery store, vacation, whatever)
    • trucking food, construction materials, laundry detergent, and basically everything we use every day around the country (also done on rail)
    • flying
  • About half of the total consumption is gasoline (which is mostly consumed by personal cars and small trucks)
  • Less than 25% of petroleum products are used in industrial processes (pharmaceuticals, plastics…etc and the energy to power these facilities)
  • Almost no electricity is produced from petroleum products
  • Assuming there are ~310 million people in the USA, 2.8 gallons/day of oil use can be attributed to the average American (the energy contained in 25 pounds of coal or 407 bars of candy)*. That’s a lot of energy.

Those are just FACTS. Go look them up if you think I’m making this stuff up. The US Department of Energy (DOE) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) both offer two unbiased scientific perspectives on US and global energy use. See the blog roll to the right for links.

So where does the US get all this oil from?

The top three oil producing countries in the world in order (2007) are Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Iran, China, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Venezuela, Nigeria, and Iraq are all top producers too. The USA isn’t exactly on the best terms with the world’s top oil producers.

On the consumption side, the USA nearly triples the next biggest user, China. China has 4.3 times as many people we use and uses 1/3 the oil. Americans use nearly 13 times more oil per capita than the Chinese. Again, just facts.

So why does the USA use so much oil?

This is a more complex question. The short answer is that oil has traditionally been inexpensive, very energy dense, and easy to transport, store, and use. Since it was so easy, it caught on.

We built infrastructures that were supported by cheap oil. We have certain expectations as a result: fresh, out-of-season fruit at the grocery stores year round, the ability to live in suburbs and work in cities, the once-a-year convenience of having a sports utility vehicle or truck.

Bottom Line: The USA uses a lot of oil – mostly to move us and our things around our big country. Why? Because oil is easy and powerful…or at least it was.

Further Reading: Department of Energy’s Annual Energy Review

* I calculated the candy and coal numbers from energy densities provided here.