U.S. Fossil Fuel Consumption Dips to 30-Year Low

Overall, U.S. petroleum consumption fell 13 percent in 2020 from 2019.
A fuel gauge

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Consumption of fossil fuel in the United States hit several new lows in 2020.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) Monthly Energy Review, total consumption of fossil fuels in the United States in 2020 — including petroleum, natural gas, and coal — fell to 72.9 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu), or a 9-percent decrease, from 2019. It was the lowest level seen since 1991.

It also marked the largest annual decrease in U.S. fossil fuel consumption in both absolute and percentage terms since at least 1949, the earliest year in EIA's annual data series.

EIA converts sources of energy to common units of heat, Btu, to compare different types of energy that are usually measured in units that are not directly comparable.

EIA pointed to two factors driving the decline: the economic responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, including a 15-percent decrease in energy consumption in the U.S. transportation sector, and a relatively warmer weather in 2020, which reduced demand for heating fuels.

According to EIA, consumption broken out by source includes:

Petroleum: Petroleum products, including motor gasoline, distillate fuel oil (diesel), and hydrocarbon gas liquids accounted for 44 percent of U.S. fossil fuel consumption in 2020. Every sector consumes petroleum, but the transportation sector accounted for about 68 percent of total petroleum consumption in 2020. Overall, U.S. petroleum consumption fell 13 percent in 2020 from 2019.

Natural Gas: Natural gas accounted for 43 percent of U.S. fossil fuel consumption in 2020, the largest annual share on record. Every sector consumes natural gas, but the electric power sector accounted for a record-high 38 percent of total natural gas consumption to generate electricity and heat in 2020.

More than 80 percent of the fossil fuel energy directly consumed in the residential and commercial sectors is natural gas, and it is mostly used for space heating. Overall, U.S. natural gas consumption decreased 2 percent in 2020 from 2019.

Coal: Coal accounted for 13 percent of U.S. fossil fuel consumption in 2020, the lowest annual share since 1949. Overall, U.S. coal consumption fell 19 percent in 2020 from 2019, the largest annual decrease on record. The electric power sector consumed about 90 percent of total coal consumption to generate electricity and heat in 2020.

Nonfuel Use: Nonfuel use of fossil fuels accounted for about 8 percent of U.S. fossil fuel consumption in 2020. Fossil fuels can be consumed — and not combusted, or burned — when they are used directly as construction materials, chemical feedstocks, lubricants, solvents, and waxes.