The U.S. Energy Information Administration has created a fascinating short animation showing how the world's appetite for oil has changed over the past three decades.
Here's how much petroleum different regions used back in 1980, when the whole world burned about 63.1 million barrels a day of gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, heating oil and other products:
The picture looks very different in 2012 — a year in which the world burned a record high 88.9 million barrels of petroleum per day:
Note that petroleum consumption in Europe has actually declined over the decades, a trend the EIA attributes to the continent's energy-efficiency policies, as well as the euro zone's recent economic stagnation. The countries that were part of the Soviet Union also saw a sharp downtick after the collapse of communism.
Meanwhile, North America's fuel use has grown only modestly since 1980 and has actually declined in recent years, due to stricter fuel-economy standards. Here's EIA: "Motor gasoline consumption, which makes up almost half of total U.S. liquids fuel consumption, fell by 290,000 bbl/d between 2010 and 2012 as the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards led to improvements in vehicle fuel economy that outpaced highway travel growth."
But the real story, of course, has been in Asia, which has nearly tripled its fuel consumption since 1980, driven largely by stunning growth in China and India. "If China's use of petroleum continues to grow as projected," EIA notes, "it is expected to replace the United States as the world's largest net oil importer this fall." (The rapid growth in Middle East consumption, where burning oil for electricity is common, is another important and little-noticed story.)
The end result? The world is now using a record amount of oil even though Europe and the United States are paring back. And even as companies are finding new sources of crude in the deep ocean, tar sands and shale rock, they're struggling to keep up and global crude prices are much, much higher than they were during the 1980s and 1990s.
The interesting question is what happens in the years ahead. Perhaps technology will enable us to keep finding new sources of crude and demand can keep growing for decades to come (although that won't be very good news for climate change). A second possibility is that the rate of oil production will soon peak and the world will have to cut back — with China and India slowly taking a bigger and bigger share of the market, since they get the most benefit from a marginal barrel of oil. See Chris Nelder for more on that argument.
Or there's a third scenario: More recently, some experts like Stanford's Adam Brandt have suggested that the world's oil demand isn't bottomless and that Asia could soon hit "peak demand" the way Europe and the United States appear to have, thanks to a saturation in travel demand and new efficiency regulations. This obviously hasn't happened yet, but see this recent post for more on this argument.
Related: John Ikenberry wrote an interesting essay in Foreign Affairs a few years ago on how China's growing appetite for oil could change the country's policies abroad.