Four Steps for Cutting Oil Use in Half in California

February 23, 2016 | 10:41 am
Don Anair
Deputy Director & Research Director, Clean Transportation

California is already on track to reduce oil use 24 percent by 2030. Considering oil use in the state had been on a steady rise for decades prior to its peak in 2007, this might be pretty surprising news. It comes in large part as a result of California’s leadership in pioneering clean air and climate change policies, which are fostering technology innovation and driving efficiency improvements throughout California’s economy.

Governor Brown has been a leading champion for cutting oil use, calling for up to a 50 percent reduction in oil consumption by 2030. And he is putting money where his mouth is, with a proposed budget that includes an investment of $1 billion of cap and trade revenues aimed at reducing global warming emissions and oil consumption, while modernizing California’s transportation system. These investments include public transit, electric vehicles, and lower carbon fuels—all key strategies that we examine in a new analysis, Half the Oil: Pathways to Reduce Petroleum Use on the West Coast, that we released last month with ICF International. The study shows, that by extending and enhancing many of the strategies California is employing today to cut oil use, the state could achieve a 50 percent cut in oil use by 2030 compared to 2015 while giving consumers more clean transportation choices.


How can California do it? Here are the 4 steps California needs to take.

Step 1: Fully implement existing transportation policies (24% reduction by 2030 compared to 2015)

Most existing policies are delivering benefits today and will need to continue to be implemented over the next several years. These include tailpipe standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions of both passenger cars and heavy-duty trucks, the low carbon fuel standard, the zero emissions vehicle program, and the SB375 Sustainable Communities Strategy, which is aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions through local and regional transportation planning. The cap and trade program is another critical element: by putting a price on carbon emissions it generates funds to invest in deploying cleaner technologies, including electric cars, trucks, and buses, and improved transit across all communities, and specifically within disadvantaged communities.

These policies are delivering benefits to Californians. Our previous analysis of the low carbon fuel standard, tailpipe standards, and the cap and trade program show that buyers of new and used vehicles can expect to save thousands of dollars in fuel cost, more than offsetting the cost of more efficient technology (see figure).

AB32 savings

While these policies are the core foundation for reducing oil use and emissions across the transportation sector, they continue to face resistance from automakers and oil companies. The allure and false sense of security provided by low oil prices may tempt some to call for weakening existing standards or taking a go slow approach, but that would be a mistake. The oil price spikes of 2008 and subsequent bankruptcy of two of the largest automakers in the U.S. should be a lesson that we should not soon forget. Policies like the Low Carbon Fuel Standard help ensure progress is being made on low carbon fuels, whether oil is $30 a barrel or $100 a barrel.

Step 2: Increase the availability of clean fuels and deployment of electric vehicles (+ 17% reduction)

Advanced low carbon fuels and electric vehicles (EVs) are still in the early stages of deployment, but offer some of the largest potential for additional oil savings over the next 20 years. Both the low carbon fuel standard and the zero emission vehicle programs currently do not extend beyond 2020 and 2025 respectively. Extending these programs through 2030, and complimenting them with continued investments in scaling up production and deploying fueling infrastructure and vehicles could deliver an additional 17 percent reduction in oil use by 2030. The low carbon transportation funding from cap and trade program revenue, other state funding programs, and the recent decisions by the Public Utilities Commission to move forward with utility investments in EV charging infrastructure are important investments to ensure we stay on track.

With declining battery costs and the much-anticipated rollout of longer range plug-in hybrids like the 2016 Chevy Volt and longer range battery-electric vehicles like the Tesla Model 3 and Chevy Bolt, California car buyers will have more capable and more affordable electric vehicle options to choose from. Expansion of California’s hydrogen refueling network and availability of vehicles like the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell EVs will offer additional low carbon vehicle choices. And as seen by the most recent assessment of the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, lower carbon fuels are increasingly becoming available in California.

In addition to passenger vehicles, electrification is advancing in the heavy-duty sector with commercialization of battery electric transit buses (Antelope Valley Transit Authority just announced its commitment to go all electric) and freight truck demonstrations underway. By 2030, deploying electric buses and trucks in select applications (the study assumes 5% of medium duty truck and 25% drayage at major ports) could displace over 300 million gallons of oil.*

Achieving a new vehicle market share of 28 percent plug-in and fuel cell vehicles by 2030, increasing alternative fuels deployment, and advancing electrification in the medium and heavy-duty vehicle sector could displace a total 2.8 billion gallons of oil use.

Step 3: Continue to increase the efficiency of cars and trucks (+7%)

The biggest impact on oil use in the near term, and the largest contributor to the currently projected 24% decrease in oil use, is from making our cars and trucks more efficient. California and federal standards for cars and trucks are expected to roughly double the efficiency of new vehicles compared to 2008. Current passenger car and truck standards are set through 2025, but there’s an opportunity to continue to build on these standards. Examination of technology potential for internal combustion engine technology and vehicle hybridization by the National Research Council shows that further gains are possible in the 2030 timeframe. Increasing car and truck efficiency 5% per year after 2025, a rate of improvement similar to existing standards, would deliver an additional 480 million gallons of savings per year.

Extending heavy-duty truck standards beyond 2018 will also deliver big benefits. Extending standards through 2030 could deliver 470 million gallons of savings per year while taking advantage of developments in technology to safely deploy truck platooning technology (tractor-trailers using automatic control equipment can travel closely together in uncongested areas to reduce aerodynamic drag) could deliver an additional 15 million gallons of savings annually.

Making sure vehicles remain efficient over their lifetime is also an important strategy to employ. When you purchase a new car, they typically come with fuel efficient tires which help automakers comply with efficiency and emissions standards. But there are no requirements for replacement tires to deliver similar performance. Standards, incentives, and transparent labeling of fuel efficient tires could all help ensure replacement tires are as good as the ones that came with the car and deliver an estimated 80 million gallons of savings by 2030.

Step 4: Expand clean transportation options (+2%)

Finally, regions around California are in the process of implementing the Sustainable Communities Strategy (part of SB 375) which requires regional transportation agencies to set goals and implement measures to achieve carbon emission reductions achieved through various transportation planning measures. These include increased access to public transit, additional pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure, car sharing, and more compact land use planning. Going beyond current commitments and taking advantage of additional measures examined, but not adopted, in current regional plans could deliver additional 2 percent oil savings by 2030.


This new analysis illustrates one pathway for cutting California oil use in half. It’s not a prediction or a prescription. But it shows that just using the technology, fuels, and transportation strategies we know of, and in most cases are implementing today, California could expand on the progress it is making and cut its oil use in half. We have the tools available to halve our oil use and realize the climate, health, and economic benefits of consuming less oil—so let’s keep using them.

To learn more about the strategies to reduce oil consumption and how California can cuts its oil use in half, visit

And urge your CA state legislator to continue California’s leadership and fund programs that will cut oil use in half. Take Action

* Note “gallons” referred to in this post are in gasoline gallon equivalents.