California Can Cut Its Oil Use In Half

September 1, 2015 | 11:38 am
Don Anair
Deputy Director & Research Director, Clean Transportation

Governor Brown’s goal of cutting oil use by up to 50 percent, and the subsequent legislative effort through SB350 to codify that goal in California law, has raised the rancor of the oil industry. It’s not surprising an industry might get defensive when lawmakers want to slash the amount of product they sell – nor is it surprising that an industry with a history of deception would not let the facts stand in the way of their response. Despite their “consumer-friendly” ads, the oil industry is really working against the public interest to protect their stranglehold over our transportation choices.

But the fact of the matter is that California, and the rest of the nation, can cut its oil use in half.

Most Californians can scarcely remember a time when oil was not our main source of  transportation fuel, and the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) would like to keep it that way. They are suggesting that using less oil will result in gas rationing and other dreadful problems.  But gas rationing is the result of having no other choices, and as UCS’s own national Half the Oil Plan shows, the future is about having more choices.  As we cut oil use and increase our choices of efficient vehicles, clean fuels, and betters ways to get around, oil will be ever less of a concern, rather than the fanciful nightmare WSPA suggests.

California is already on the path to lower oil use

California has already started a transition away from oil, and all of its associated economic, environmental, and public health problems. The strategies that are making this possible – better vehicle efficiency, advanced low-carbon fuels, and smarter transportation and land-use planning – have contributed to a decline in petroleum use. Extending and enhancing these existing clean transportation measures could achieve further reductions in petroleum consumption and pollution from car and freight transportation in the coming decades.


California and federal standards for passenger vehicles have led to increasingly more efficient new cars and trucks available to consumers.

California’s pioneering efforts to cut carbon emissions from new vehicles led to similar standards at the federal level for fuel economy and emissions that would nearly double the on-road fuel economy of new vehicles from just 20 miles per gallon in the early 2000’s to an estimated 37 mpg in 2025. Automakers are stepping up to the challenge by making vehicles, from small cars to heavy duty pick-us, more efficient.

Already 10 percent of vehicles sold today nationwide meet the standards for 2020 and beyond, adding up to thousands of dollars in fuel savings for their owners. In addition, a recent evaluation by the national academies provided encouraging news about not only meeting the standards for 2025, but the potential to go beyond as manufacturers are innovating in unexpected ways.


Fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards could cut new heavy-duty trucks and buses fuel consumption 40% by 2025 compared to 2010 levels.

The same goes for heavy-duty trucks that we rely on to deliver goods. EPA and NHTSA are already implementing national standards to cut oil use from these trucks and have proposed another round of standards to capture the benefits of already available, or soon to be available, fuel efficiency technologies. Our analysis shows cutting fuel use from new heavy-duty trucks by 40% compared to 2010 is not only feasible but returns savings to truck owners and consumers that are far greater than what the technology costs.

California is also pioneering the deployment of electric vehicles, from cars that plug-in to ones that are fueled with hydrogen. In only 5 years, 150,000 plug-in electric vehicles are on the road today in California and are saving drivers $85 million dollars in gasoline per year. In this short time span, we are already seeing electric drive technology evolve. The 2016 Chevy Volt will go farther on electricity than the previous model and cost less. And automakers intend to bring longer range battery electric vehicles, like the Chevy Bolt, to market within the next couple of years.

Policies like the low carbon fuel standard are helping to diversify our fuels even further, providing strong market signals to investors in pursuing a range of low-carbon biofuels – from renewable natural gas to celluslosic ethanol, and drop-in fuels like renewable gasoline or diesel. Multiple studies show the potential for bio-based fuels to play a growing role in reducing petroleum consumption in California and beyond.

In addition to expanding fuel and vehicle options, communities throughout California are improving the way they plan. They are investing in more complete streets that accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, and cars while improving safety as well as building housing near transit and other transportation services, supporting car-sharing options and improving transit.

Committing to cut oil use in half will drive innovation

Setting ambitious targets, as Senate Bill 350 does by requiring a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use by 2030, will provide clear signals to investors and entrepreneurs that California is committed to a cleaner and better transportation system, fostering the spirit of innovation which has served California for decades. Companies like Tesla, which employs thousands of Californians, immediately come to mind as innovative companies shaping the future of California transportation. But there are many more of them already here. Companies like BYD and Proterra are making electric buses in California, Uber and Lyft are changing the way people travel on a daily basis, and Apple and Google are getting into the transportation game.

Setting a goal for reducing petroleum demand and consumption is not the same as mandating less gasoline use. It’s a goal that recognizes the scientific evidence that we cannot continue to burn oil indefinitely without catastrophic costs to our climate and way of life. California can cut its oil use in half by continuing to foster innovation, setting ambitious goals, and making smart investments.