Even in an electric vehicle utopia we will still need crude oil

Even in an electric vehicle utopia we will still need crude oil
© Getty Images

The media hype for electric vehicles and alternative energies threatens to obscure America’s continued need for oil. Even if one accepts the most ambitious projections for electric vehicle adoption in the United States, crude oil and gasoline will continue to be vital to the country’s economy and the lifestyles of Americans for generations.

It is incumbent on the United States not to neglect the expansion and diversification of its sources of crude oil. Policies aimed at keeping crude oil resources “in the ground” will prove crippling to the country’s economic health and energy security — even if the most optimistic projections for electric vehicle adoption prove correct.

The future of electric vehicles is uncertain, opening space for some very ambitious claims, but according to the Energy Information Administration, less than half of the crude oil consumed in the United States is converted into gasoline. From a barrel of crude of oil, which is 42 gallons, only about 20 gallons becomes gasoline. The rest is refined into a variety of petrochemicals, heating oil, jet fuel, propane and kerosene. Crude oil is used to make a variety of products we use every day, like plastics, lip balm, crayons, artificial heart valves, nail polish, deodorant and contact lenses.


Moreover, despite the excitement from the promises of new technology, it is almost certain that most vehicles on American roads will use internal combustion engines for decades, if not for generations. While electric vehicles proponents tout lofty numbers of future sales, almost all of these refer to light duty vehicles, such as personal cars and SUVs. They do not typically address trucks, construction vehicles and the like. These larger vehicles will continue to use the internal combustion engine much longer than cars, if only because of their size.

One of the more ambitious projections for the adoption of electric cars is from Bloomberg’s Electric Vehicle Outlook 2017, which forecast an incredible jump in electric vehicle sales, which still only comes to about 3.5 percent of all new cars sold in the U.S. by 2021.

Leases and used car sales of EVs would be much lower as they present particular problems for the electric vehicle phenomenon since the value of electric vehicles — heavily tied to the value of the battery — deteriorates with each recharge.

The Bloomberg Outlook also forecasts remarkable jumps by 2025 (to about 10 percent of new sales) and 2040 (to about 60 percent of new sales). Even if these impressive projections come true, 40 percent of new light duty vehicle sales will still require an internal combustion engine and crude oil products 23 years from now.

In addition, a typical personal vehicle with an internal combustion engine in the United States remains on the road for about 11.5 years, meaning many gasoline-powered cars will remain in use long after the 21st Century hits its last decades. Moreover, gasoline and diesel will still be needed for other portable engines and vehicles such as the vast majority of lawn mowers, chainsaws, generators and motored boats.

Even if the most optimistic projections for electric vehicle adoptions do come true, crude oil will still remain vital to the American economy. Petroleum will still be required to make every day products, petrochemicals, a variety of fuels and even gasoline. Most likely global oil demand will continue to grow well into the future. As BP reported in 2015, cars only accounted for 19 million barrels per day of liquid fuel demand — just a fifth of global demand. Electric vehicles may temper this growth but both policymakers and private industry should not lose sight of the critical importance of petroleum to the economy and energy security. 

As we craft energy policy and consider how to manage our resources for the future, we should not allow wishful thinking about electric vehicles to lead us to neglect our energy and economic security. Even the most electric vehicle-friendly and optimistic voices are dreaming of a future that will still require large amounts of crude oil. It is vital to the American economy and energy security to continue to explore and develop new sources of crude oil for generations to come even as the market welcomes new energy technologies.

Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D., is a consultant on energy and geopolitics and teaches history and policy at Jacksonville University. Wald’s upcoming book “Saudi, Inc.: The Arabian Kingdom's Pursuit of Profit and Power” will be released in 2018.