That slide has largely been caused by the increasing use of coal, natural gas and nuclear power. Over the past four decades, oil use has grown by 34 million barrels per day, or 61 percent — on its face, a healthy increase. At the same time, coal use has soared by nearly 44 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, or 140 percent. The next biggest gainer has been natural gas, of which global consumption has increased by about 39 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, or 184 percent. During that same period, nuclear energy saw huge percentage growth, rising by 1,100 percent. In absolute terms, however, nuclear remains a relatively small player, producing about 11 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, which is less than 5 percent of global energy demand.
This diversification of the energy market, along with growing national strategic petroleum reserves, has made the global economy more resilient to sudden changes in oil prices. For its part, the U.S. has also become more efficient in using petroleum. Back in 1973, it consumed about 17.3 million barrels of oil per day, using it to generate almost 17 percent of its electricity. Today, that share is down to about 1 percent.
Americans are also getting more economic growth from each barrel of oil they consume. In 1973, the U.S. population was 212 million; its gross domestic product was $5 trillion. Today, the population is about 316 million, and GDP has grown to about $14 trillion. (Both GDP figures are in 2005 dollars.) In other words, the U.S. has increased its population by half and nearly tripled its economic output, while consuming only 7 percent more oil.
Adding to the U.S.’s enviable energy position is its shale gas boom. In 2012, the country produced an average of almost 66 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day — more than at any other time in its history. Prices have fallen (they’re now at about $3.64 per million British thermal units) to the point where the U.S. has a price advantage over every other country, with the possible exception of Qatar. Cheap gas is fueling a resurgence in U.S. manufacturing of everything from steel to fertilizer.