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The world's biggest gas-guzzling nation has limits after all.

After seven decades of mostly uninterrupted growth, U.S. gasoline demand is at the start of a long-term decline. By 2030, Americans will burn at least 20 percent less gasoline than today, experts say, even as millions of more cars clog the roads.

The country's thirst for gasoline is shrinking as cars and trucks become more fuel-efficient, the government mandates the use of more ethanol and people drive less.

"A combination of demographic change and policy change means the days of gasoline growing in the U.S. are over," said Daniel Yergin, chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates and author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the oil industry.

This isn't the first time in U.S. history that gasoline demand has fallen, at least temporarily. Drivers typically cut back during recessions, then hit the road again when the economy picks up. The Great Recession was the chief reason demand fell sharply in 2008.

But this time looks different. Government and industry officials — including the CEO of Exxon Mobil — say U.S. gasoline demand has peaked for good. It has declined four years in a row and will not reach the 2006 level again, even when the economy fully recovers.

In fact, the ground was shifting before the recession. The 2001 terrorist attacks, the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and pump prices rising to a nationwide average of $3 a gallon for the first time in a generation reignited public debates about the political and economic effects of oil imports and climate change. Also, the popularity of SUVs began to wane, and the government started requiring refiners to blend corn-based ethanol into every gallon of gasoline.

Americans are burning an average of 8.2 million barrels — 344 million gallons — of gasoline per day in 2010. That's 8 percent less than at the 2006 peak, according to government data.

The decline is expected to accelerate for several reasons.

• Starting with the 2012 model year, cars will have to hit a higher fuel economy target for the first time since 1990. Each carmaker's fleet must average 30.1 mpg, up from 27.5. By the 2016 model year, that number must rise to 35.5 mpg. And, starting next year, SUVs and minivans, once classified as trucks, will count toward passenger vehicle targets.

• The auto industry is introducing cars that run partially or entirely on electricity, and the federal government is providing billions of dollars in subsidies to increase production.

• By 2022, the country's fuel mix must include 36 billion gallons of ethanol and other biofuels, up from 14 billion gallons in 2011. Put another way, biofuels will account for roughly one of every four gallons sold at the pump.

• Gasoline prices are forecast to stay high as developing economies in Asia and the Middle East use more oil.

There are demographic factors at work, too. Baby boomers will drive less as they age. The surge of women entering the work force and commuting in recent decades has leveled off. And the era of Americans commuting ever greater distances appears to be over.

Paul Sankey, an analyst at Deutsche Bank, predicts by 2030 America will use 5.4 million barrels a day, the same as in 1969. As a result, families will spend less on fuel, the country's dependence on foreign oil will wane and heat-trapping emissions of carbon dioxide will grow more slowly. —

The rise and fall of gasoline use

1905 • Country's first gasoline filling station is built in St. Louis.

1946 • Gasoline demand rises 25 percent the year after World War II ends.

1952 • During Korean War, demand falls by 1 percent. It's the only decline between 1945 and 1974.

1974 • Arab oil embargo causes demand to drop by 2 percent.

1975 • U.S. adopts its first fuel economy standards for autos. The nation's fleet averages 13.1 mpg.

1978 • Energy Tax Act includes first subsidy for ethanol.

1980 • Iranian revolution leads to a second "oil shock." From 1978 until 1980, U.S. demand falls 11 percent.

1990 • Ford introduces the Explorer. It was classified as a light truck, and it and other SUVs were exempt from fuel economy rules that apply to cars.

2005 • High gas prices, elevated in part by Hurricane Katrina, prompt drivers to shun SUVs; Congress requires refiners to blend ethanol into gas.

2008 • Demand falls 3 percent as recession spreads and pump prices reach record national average of $4.11 per gallon.

2010 • Demand falls for fourth straight year, to an average 8.2 million barrels per day. —

Guzzling less

The peak • After seven decades of mostly uninterrupted growth, U.S. gasoline demand is now declining.

The cause • Rising gasoline prices starting in the middle of the past decade helped turn drivers away from SUVs, and the government began to mandate ethanol use.

The future • Gasoline demand is expected to fall faster. Fuel economy standards for cars are about to tighten for the first time in 20 years, ethanol mandates continue to grow, and aging baby boomers will drive less.