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January 06, 2006

Flat Liners

Interesting.  It looks as though gasoline consumption in the Pacific Northwest has more or less plateaued since 1998, when gas prices were at an inflation-adjusted low point.  Take a look, especially at the little flat part on the far right of the trend line:Recent_gas_1

Of course, this is based on partial-year data for 2005; actual consumption for the year may be a bit higher (because of a strong economy) or a bit lower (because of high prices).  But even if 2005 proves to be a bit higher than 1998 in the final analysis, it's still a surprising trend.  With the exception of the oil crisis/recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s, gas consumption has grown pretty consistently since the 1950s.  And per capita consumption of gas had barely budged since the early 1980s -- our consumption has been tightly correlated with total population growth.

But if these numbers are right, we're starting to see some concrete signs that high prices are begininning to bite.  From 1999 through last year, average per-capita gas consumption throughout the region fell by 7 percent.  That's not a huge amount, mind you.  But it's something.

It's too early to tell whether that trend will continue--whether we'll continue to be able to add new residents without increasing our total consumption.  I doubt it.  Still, the little flat part to the right of that graph gives me some reason to be hopeful.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink


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Encouraging! Few people reading this blog would argue that flat lining is preferable to actually seeing the other side of the curve... but to make sure we've got a better handle on overall trends, I'd be curious about our other uses of those wonderful petroleum products.

From what I can gather, on-road diesel consumption is not slowing down-- at least in Washington State. Perhaps we're driving less per capita, but we sure are bringing in the goods. Seems as though our state has seen a 65%+ increase in diesel fuel (purchases, as determined by statewide gas tax revenue) from 1990 to 2000-- and while this isn't a greater overall usage than gasoline, it's 15-20% and climbing, so should be making quite a dent in any cumulative gasoline reduction efforts-- and make climbing down the bigger mountain all the more challenging.

(Not sure what other states are up to with on-road diesel, non-road diesel or other uses-- or if the 1990-2000 trend isn't representative of an overall trend due to more short-term economic (read: Port-related) gains during this time. But it's worth thinking about).

Posted by: JM | Jan 6, 2006 1:53:30 PM

JM --

You found me out. Diesel consumption is rising, which has partially offset the good news about gasoline. I was going to save that for another post, but you beat me to the punch.

Still, the gas trend by itself seems encouraging: in our personal lives we're driving less, which is good for lots of reasons.

However, to the exthat that we're driving less because we're having more stuff delivered to our homes (Amazon, mail-order catalogs, etc) rather than driving to the store, then we should lump at least part of the diesel trends in with gas. And, of course, there may be some small shift from gas- to diesel-powered vehicles. Of course, it's hard to know how much of a difference these factors (home delivery and diesel passenger vehicles) make in gas trends -- so for the moment I'm tempted to treat them as separate phenomena.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Jan 6, 2006 2:40:54 PM

Hey, to reverse a trend, you've first got to slow it down. This has been discussed a bit in the context of the Highway Trust Fund and the recent ISTEA renewal: federal wonks say that overall fleet fuel economy is still increasing (the negative impact of SUVs has been on the fuel economy of the new additions), so rising gas tax revenues have also flattened. This creates a mild problem for the current crop of big-government Republicans, who want to spend even more lavishly while cutting taxes, but bah, that's nothing that borrowing can't fix.

Posted by: payton chung | Jan 6, 2006 2:50:31 PM

I find it somewhat humorous that here, one looks at the numbers and sees progress, while another blog interpreted this trend as horrible (that is, "Oh no! Consumption still went up in 2005 despite the push to conservation!"). Unfortunately I've forgotten where I saw the counterpoint (I wanted to go back and add some more in the comments).

Posted by: Jason | Jan 9, 2006 7:28:23 PM

Jason --

I hope I'm not just being a "glass half full" kinda guy. But it seems that with two trends pushing consumption up (rising population, growing economy) and only one pushing it down (price increases), it's reasonable to be pleased that total consumption barely budged.

That said, it's probably a bad idea to get too excited one way or the other. You just can't read too much into any one year's figure -- not just because one year isn't enough to set a trend, but also because the data just aren't reliable enough to tell, in any definitive sense, what the actual trend is. The official figures will always be a little off -- maybe a percent or two in any region. But when consumption only goes up or down a percent or two a year, the error in the data may overwhelm the actual change in the trend you're trying to measure.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Jan 9, 2006 10:17:19 PM

Oh, I think there's some merit there. This is the longest sustained plateau other than the depression during the Reagan era, and it started during a boom economy. Certainly that has to mean something.

Posted by: Jason | Jan 10, 2006 9:29:01 AM