Considering all the talk about global warming, peak oil, carbon divestment, and renewable energy, you’d think that oil consumption in the United States would be on a downward path. By now, we should certainly be witnessing real progress toward a post-petroleum economy. As it happens, the opposite is occurring. US oil consumption is on an upward trajectory, climbing by 400,000 barrels per day in 2013 alone—and, if current trends persist, it should rise again both this year and next.
In other words, oil is back. Big time. Signs of its resurgence abound. Despite what you may think, Americans, on average, are driving more miles every day, not fewer, filling ever more fuel tanks with ever more gasoline, and evidently feeling ever less bad about it. The stigma of buying new gas-guzzling SUVs, for instance, seems to have vanished; according to CNN Money, nearly one out of three vehicles sold today is an SUV. As a result of all this, America’s demand for oil grew more than China’s in 2013, the first time that’s happened since 1999.
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Accompanying all this is a little noticed but crucial shift in White House rhetoric. While President Obama once spoke of the necessity of eliminating our reliance on petroleum as a major source of energy, he now brags about rising US oil output and touts his efforts to further boost production.
Just five years ago, few would have foreseen such a dramatic oil rebound. Many energy experts were then predicting an imminent “peak” in global oil production, followed by an irreversible decline in output. With supplies constantly shrinking, it was said, oil prices would skyrocket and consumers would turn to hybrid vehicles, electric cars, biofuels, and various transportation alternatives. New government policies would be devised to facilitate this shift, providing tax breaks and other incentives for making the switch to renewables.
At that time, a growing concern over climate change and the prospect of further warming due to increased emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels seemed to dim the long-term prospects for petroleum. After all, oil combustion is this country’s single largest source of carbon emissions. This, in turn, clearly meant that any significant attempt to reduce emissions—whether through a carbon tax, a carbon cap-and-trade program, or other such measures—would naturally have to incorporate significant impediments to oil use. President Obama entered the White House promising to enact such a measure, and the House of Representatives passed a modified cap-and-trade bill in 2009. (It failed in the Senate and so never became law.)
The 2008 financial crisis and global economic meltdown only put oil’s future in further doubt. Suddenly cash-conscious Americans began trading in their gas-guzzlers for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, with the Obama administration adding its encouragement. When agreeing to the bailout of General Motors, for instance, the White House insisted that the reorganized company focus on the production of such vehicles. In a similar spirit, the administration’s $787 billion stimulus package favored investment in electric cars, biofuels, high-speed rail, and other petroleum alternatives.
The president’s comments at the time clearly reflected a belief that oil was an “old” form of energy facing inevitable decline. “The United States of America cannot afford to bet our long-term prosperity, our long-term security on a resource that will eventually run out, and even before it runs out will get more expensive to extract from the ground,” he declared in 2011. “We can’t afford it when the costs to our economy, our country, and our planet are so high.” Not only did the country need to lessen its dangerous reliance on imported oil, he insisted, but on oil altogether. “The only way for America’s energy supply to be truly secure is by permanently reducing our dependence on oil.”