US energy use hit 30-year low during pandemic shutdowns

The drop was driven by less demand for coal that is burned for electricity and oil

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

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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.

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Overall U.S. energy consumption dropped 14  percent 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.

FILE - This April 26, 2020, file photo shows empty lanes of the 110 Arroyo Seco Parkway that leads to downtown Los Angeles during the coronavirus outbreak in Los Angeles, Calif. A record drop in U.S. energy consumption this spring was driven by less

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.

FILE - In this July 27, 2018, file photo, the Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyo. A record drop in U.S. energy consumption this spring was driven by less demand for coal that's burned for elect

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 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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The American declines were in line with lower energy usage around the globe as when the COVID-19 outbreak seized up economies.

FILE - In this March 25, 2020, file photo, passenger and cargo aircraft are seen stored at Southern California Logistics Airport, in Victorville, Calif., to the pandemic. A record drop in U.S. energy consumption this spring was driven by less demand

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.

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, chief economist of the American Petroleum Institute.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.