U.S. fossil fuel consumption in 2020 took largest annual slide, to reach lowest level since 1991

Published on July 08, 2021 by Chris Galford

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The use of fossil fuels in the United States continued to plummet throughout the pandemic year, with consumption tumbling 9 percent in 2020 across the accumulated spectrum of petroleum, natural gas, and coal, reaching the lowest level since 1991, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

As of last year, consumption fell to 72.9 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu). That slide resulted from the largest annual decrease in consumption in absolute and percentage terms alike since at least 1949 — the earliest year of the EIA’s data collection. Granted, much of this decline was also fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic response, which brought about a 15 percent decrease in energy consumption in the U.S. transportation sector alone. Relatively warmer weather helped as well by reducing demand for heating fuels.

Of the fossil fuels that were consumed last year, petroleum and natural gas dominated. Petroleum products accounted for 44 percent, and natural gas accounted for 43 percent of U.S. fossil fuel consumption. For natural gas, this marked its largest annual share on record, thanks largely to record-high usage by the electric power sector, which consumed 38 percent of the total natural gas.

U.S. petroleum consumption fell 13 percent last year, while natural gas consumption decreased 2 percent.

For coal, 2020 represented its lowest share since 1949, at just 13 percent of total U.S. fossil fuel consumption. This represents a 6 percent fall from where it was in 2019, meaning it also suffered its largest annual decrease on record. Much of what was used by the electric power sector accounted for 90 percent of the coal consumed.

The remaining 8 percent of fossil fuel consumption came from their nonfuel use. This refers to construction materials, chemical feedstocks, lubricants, solvents, waxes, and more.