DAVID GREENE, HOST:
You just heard President Obama mention the spike in gas prices we're seeing right now. It's worth noting the rising prices are not – as you might expect – the result of higher demand from consumers. In fact, over the past four years, the U.S. appetite for oil and gasoline has been falling.
And that's likely to continue, as NPR's John Ydstie reports.
JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Since the first Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, America has struggled to quench a growing appetite for oil and gasoline. But that's changing.
DAN YERGIN: When you look at the U.S. oil market, you see that there's actually no growth.
YDSTIE: That's Dan Yergin, chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates. He says gasoline demand peaked in 2007 and has fallen each year since, even though the economy has begun to recover.
YERGIN: The U.S. has already reached what we can call peak demand. Because of greater efficiency, because of biofuels, we're not going to see growth in our oil consumption.
YDSTIE: That view is shared by the government's official source of energy data, the Energy Information Administration. Its long-term projection is that gasoline consumption will steadily decline by around 7 percent over the next 25 years.
EIA Acting Administrator Howard Gruenspecht says that's without taking into account the latest proposal on automotive fuel efficiency, likely to be approved later this year. It requires fleet averages of 54 and a half miles per gallon.
HOWARD GRUENSPECHT: If you put those into the mix, we would expect a somewhat steeper decline in overall liquid fuels demand, and gasoline demand in particular.
YDSTIE: Gruenspecht says there are a number of reasons for the declining demand for gasoline. They include government mandates for the use of biofuels, like ethanol, and some demographic changes. For instance, the graying of America - older people tend to drive less. But the main factor is the increasing efficiency of new cars and trucks.
REBECCA LINDLAND: The big difference, really, is that we've changed from SUVs to crossovers.
YDSTIE: That's Rebecca Lindland, director of research for IHS Automotive. She says 27 percent of the new vehicles sold in 2011 were smaller, lighter, car-based versions of the SUV, called crossovers.
LINDLAND: And those tend to get significantly better fuel economy than our traditional truck-based SUVs, that used to account for about 20 percent of every vehicle we bought.
YDSTIE: Now, those big SUVs are less than 5 percent of sales. And the average fuel efficiency of the crossovers is 20 to 30 percent higher than that of the old SUVs. Of course, the higher price of gasoline plays a role in the changeover, says the EIA's Howard Gruenspecht.
GRUENSPECHT: I'm sure it's having some effect, but I don't think it's a major driver.
YDSTIE: Rebecca Lindland agrees that the high price at the pump plays a role. But it's not the main consideration in consumer vehicle purchases, she says.
LINDLAND: What really matters to the consumer, what really drives their purchase decision, is whether the vehicle meets their wants and needs in terms of their cargo load - whether it's people or stuff - and just their overall lifestyle.
YDSTIE: Lindland says the key to the decline in gasoline use is higher government fuel-efficiency standards, which has forced automakers to make more fuel-efficient cars that appeal to consumers. If fuel economy were the top priority, says Lindland, hybrids sales would be exploding. But they're not.
LINDLAND: Actually, hybrid sales have been declining the last two years. So we're down to just 2.1 percent of the market is hybrid sales - that's 2.1. And so we're selling, you know, nine times as many small car and, of course, more than 12 times as many crossovers.
YDSTIE: Eventually, hybrids and electric vehicles will likely make a big contribution to curbing the U.S. oil appetite. But for now, at least, most of the increases in fuel efficiency are coming from improvements in conventional gas-powered cars, including turbo-chargers that make smaller engines more powerful; six-speed instead of three- and four-speed transmissions; smaller size; and lighter materials. Lindland says the next big improvement will be the broad use of a start-stop feature that turns the engine off when you're at a traffic light, for instance, and automatically restarts it when you press on the accelerator. It's a feature already widely available in Europe.
John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.
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