Americans canm save oil. This is the message they are sending to the world -- and perhaps to their own wasteful impulses -- in the new figures on oil consumption.
Last year, while the West's six other major industrial nations increasedm their oil use by various percentages, the US decreasedm its oil use. In February of this year US demand dropped 13.2 percent from the same month a year ago -- the largest year-to-year decline in history. At the same time, according to the American Petroleum Institute, stocks of crude oil were at an all-time high. The gasoline supply was up more than 9 percent. Oil imports were at least marginally down, from 8.3 million barrels a day to 8.03 million.
Rising prices spurred the savings. But accompanying them is the growth of a so-called conservation ethic, recognizing that efficient use of energy becomes an individual and institutional responsibility in a world of shared resources. Underlying the thrust may also be -- or ought to be -- a mounting comprehension of the importance to national security of reducing dependence on imported oil subject to political vicissitudes abroad. It should go without saying that, for all these reasons, it is important to maintain energy production as well as energy efficiency in the United States.
The present point is that energy efficiency is the most immediately available and effective means of energy production. The oil industry itself is illustrating this fact with its own savings of almost 20 percent in the energy used for refining. This means 334,000 barrels a day, 122 million a year, that do not have to be imported -- enough, it is estimated, to heat all the homes in New England for a year.
Of course, various reasons besides conservation affect fluctuating oil use. But the possibilities may be hinted by the high level of oil consumption from which the United States has started to cut back. The countries such as Canada, Japan, and West Germany that raised their oil use last year started from a far lower national and per capita figure.
Even after cutting use by 2 percent in the first 11 months of 1979, while other countries were using more than before, the US was using over 18 million barrels a day. All of Western Europe, plus Yugoslavia, was using only 14.6 million barrels -- for a population of some 75 million more than the US. When the US in February used 18.3 million barrels a day, as opposed to 21.1 million a year before, it was cutting consumption more than the entire daily use of Canada , which is some 2 million barrels a day.
So Americans have a long way to go in controlling energy use. But they have begun. And when Americans get going, watch out!