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Science and Innovations

‘Unprecedented’ Drop In U.S. Gasoline Use Due To Coronavirus Pandemic

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Data from the U.S. Department of Energy shows a dramatic plunge in gasoline use as people follow health recommendations to stay home during the coronavirus pandemic. Kevin Gurney of Northern Arizona University is tracking the data daily. He says it reveals the financial upheaval caused by the pandemic, but also could hold lessons for how to act on climate change. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with Kevin Gurney about his findings.

Melissa Sevigny: So you’ve been tracking this data about gasoline use in the U.S. What have you noticed in the last couple of weeks?

Kevin Gurney: Maybe not surprisingly there’s been a dramatic decline… something like to 25 to 30 percent decline, very unusual, in fact, historically unprecedented. That’s the most dramatic, noticeable thing. It is fundamentally on-road transportation that’s gone down. Gasoline is used in a few other places but only in very small amounts. It’s primarily used to power on-road vehicles.

Credit Kevin Gurney
Data from the U.S. Department of Energy shows the recent drop in gasoline use. The scale starts at February 2016.

So historically unprecedented, has the U.S. never seen a drop like this before? 

No, we’ve never seen—well, I should say, as far as the data is available…We have data that goes back maybe to the 1980s… In that data record, you can see two very obvious things when looking at the data: one is the global financial crisis… and then the oil shock in the late 1970s…But neither one of them saw declines of that magnitude even on an annual basis and certainly nothing on a week by week type basis. We don’t know if this will persist, of course. That’s the big question. For it to stack up against those events… we’d have to stay in this decline for a while.

So let’s talk a little bit about climate change. Less cars on the road mean we’re putting less carbon emissions into the air. Do you think it’s significant enough to make a difference with climate change?

We’ll see. Similarly, it’s got to persist…. If we simply go back to what we were doing before—now I’m shifting over to purely looking at this from a climate change perspective—if all that happens here is we have a temporary decline, but in 6 months or 12 months our economic activity returns to what it was before, we’ll simply go right back onto the trajectory we were on before, which was not a good trajectory, in which we were showing essentially business as usual.

And I think we’re all eager to get back to business as usual, right? We want to get back to our lives.

Of course, of course. … And it could be this is an opportunity, perhaps, to learn from how CO2 has changed according to the way we’ve restructured our lives, and maybe there are opportunities we can take advantage of and embed them in the long term. There may be issues about commuting that we really could improve. Maybe more tele-commuting. Maybe more video conferences as opposed to, like I do an awful lot, constantly getting on airplanes and flying all over the world for meetings.

Tell me more about that. What sort of lessons might we draw from this experience that would help us how to figure out how to reduce carbon emissions but without these wide-scale disruptions that we’re experiencing right now?

On-road is great example, where it is a quarter to a fifth of U.S. CO2 emissions… So this decline shows us the power of that sector. Driving is really—has a profound effect, immediately, on emissions. So possibilities could be that, as employers have noted those parts of their employee base that are both doing well and functioning under tele-commuting circumstances, that might be viewed as a very powerful means to have the same productivity we had before for less CO2 footprint…. Again, plenty of places that we can see this sort of communicating, working, functioning at a distance can work and places where it doesn’t. I think there are a lot of opportunities there to make a difference.

Kevin Gurney, thank you so much for speaking with me today and stay well.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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