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US energy use hit 30-year low during pandemic shutdowns

US energy use hit 30-year low during pandemic shutdowns
Posted at 6:09 AM, Jul 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-30 07:05:10-04

U.S. energy consumption plummeted to its lowest level in more than 30 years this spring as the nation’s economy largely shut down because of the coronavirus, federal officials reported Wednesday.

The drop was driven by less demand for coal that is burned for electricity and oil that’s refined into gasoline and jet fuel, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said.

The declines were in line with lower energy usage around the globe as the pandemic seized up economies.

Those trends are turning around as commercial activity resumes but the impact has already been profound — including energy companies filing for bankruptcy protection and a forecasted dip in annual U.S. and global greenhouse gas emissions.

Overall U.S. energy consumption dropped 14 % during April compared to a year earlier, the energy administration said. That’s the lowest monthly level since 1989 and the largest decrease ever recorded in data that’s been collected since 1973.

The largest drop previously seen was in December 2001, after the Sept. 11 attacks shocked the economy and a mild winter depressed electricity demand.

Natural gas bucked the trend with a 15 percent increase in use during the April lockdown. More people at home meant more demand for natural gas as a heating fuel, while relatively few homes are heated with coal or oil, said Brett Marohl, who helped produce the energy administration findings.

Petroleum consumption fell to 14.7 million barrels a day in April, down almost a third compared to the same period in 2019. Demand already has rebounded some after stay-at-home orders expired and large sectors of the economy started moving again.

Led by people resuming some of their old driving habits, particularly in cities, petroleum consumption in June was back up to 17.6 million barrels a day, according to the American Petroleum Institute. But new drilling activity continued to be weak, declining in June for the seventh month in a row to 11 million barrels daily as stockpiles of oil and petroleum products remained near record levels.

The spring drop in oil demand coincided with a market collapse triggered by a price dispute between Russia and Saudi Arabia.

“While we are not out of the woods yet, we do appear to be headed in the right direction,” said Dean Foreman, the industry group’s chief economist.

Coal companies are expected to have an even tougher time recovering from the pandemic, which hit as the coal sector remained on a fairly steady downward spiral since 2007 despite President Donald Trump’s attempts to prop it up.

Coal consumption fell 27 percent in April compared to the same period in 2019, to 27 million tons. Most coal produced in the U.S. is used to generate electricity but many utilities have switched to cheaper natural gas and renewable sources like wind and solar.

The energy administration projects overall consumption will increase for the rest of 2020 but remain below 2019 levels.

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Follow Matthew Brown on twitter: @matthewbrownap