DOE/EPA say Obama’s right, Limbaugh’s wrong: More oil can be found in your car than offshore

How much oil can be found in Americans’ car — through more efficient driving and better vehicle maintenance? Using current numbers from the Bush DOE and EPA , the answer appears to be some 2.5 to 3 million barrels a day — 20 times what could be found if we ended the congressional moratorium on offshore drilling (see “The cruel offshore-drilling hoax“) and three times the oil we are likely to find in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (see “Opening ANWR cuts gas prices TWO cents in 2025“).

And these savings would quickly lower Americans’ annual fuel bills perhaps $700 a year , whereas drilling might save them about $12 a year in 20 years.

But let me begin at the beginning. Obama, as everyone knows, has presented detailed national strategies to reduce oil consumption as part of his climate plan months ago (see “Obama’s excellent energy and climate plan“). Now the right wing is all agog at some remarks Obama made yesterday about what individuals can do:

“We could save all the oil that they’re talking about getting off drilling if everybody was just inflating their tires and getting regular tune-ups. You could save just as much.”

Limbaugh said:

This is unbelievable! My friends, this is laughable of course, but it’s stupid! It is stupid! … Avoid jackrabbit starts, keep your tires properly inflated, there’s a list of about ten or twelve these things. I said if I follow each one of these things I’ll have to stop the car every five miles, siphon some fuel out, for all the fuel I’m going to be saving. This is ridiculous…. Who has filled his head with this stuff?

Actually, it is probably the Bush administration’s own Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency that has filled him with that stuff. Let’s do the math.

First, America consumes about 22 million barrels of oil a day. According to a recent EPA report, “light-duty vehicles account for approximately 40 percent of all U.S. oil consumption,” or about 9 million barrels of oil a day.

Strange as it may seem, the Bush/Cheney DOE and EPA jointly run a website,, that provides recommendations to consumers for saving fuel. And it quantifies the savings. First, we have the recommendations for


  • Keep Your Engine Properly Tuned: Fixing a car that is noticeably out of tune or has failed an emissions test can improve its gas mileage by an average of 4 percent, though results vary based on the kind of repair and how well it is done. Fixing a serious maintenance problem, such as a faulty oxygen sensor, can improve your mileage by as much as 40 percent.
  • Check & Replace Air Filters Regularly: Replacing a clogged air filter can improve your car’s gas mileage by as much as 10 percent. Your car’s air filter keeps impurities from damaging the inside of your engine. Not only will replacing a dirty air filter save gas, it will protect your engine.
  • Keep Tires Properly Inflated: You can improve your gas mileage by around 3.3 percent by keeping your tires inflated to the proper pressure. Under-inflated tires can lower gas mileage by 0.4 percent for every 1 psi drop in pressure of all four tires. Properly inflated tires are safer and last longer.
  • Use the Recommended Grade of Motor Oil: You can improve your gas mileage by 1-2 percent by using the manufacturer’s recommended grade of motor oil. For example, using 10W-30 motor oil in an engine designed to use 5W-30 can lower your gas mileage by 1-2 percent. Using 5W-30 in an engine designed for 5W-20 can lower your gas mileage by 1-1.5 percent. Also, look for motor oil that says “Energy Conserving” on the API performance symbol to be sure it contains friction-reducing additives.

Okay, let’s say we had a real president who actually cared about ending our addiction to oil during a time we are at war in the Persian Gulf. Let’s say he made a major effort to work with the governors and the mayor is to educate the public and perhaps had an economic stimulus package that included vouchers for low income people to get their car tuned up.

How much could we save? Let’s be conservative here and just say 10%. That’s 900,000 barrels a day. That’s ANWR. That’s six times what is currently blocked by the congressional moratorium on coastal drilling.

But that’s not all. Limbaugh noted that the recommendations he has been ignoring all of these years include “avoid jackrabbits starts.” Turns out the DOE has also quantified the benefits of


  • Drive Sensibly: Aggressive driving (speeding, rapid acceleration and braking) wastes gas. It can lower your gas mileage by 33 percent at highway speeds and by 5 percent around town. Sensible driving is also safer for you and others, so you may save more than gas money.
  • Observe the Speed Limit: While each vehicle reaches its optimal fuel economy at a different speed (or range of speeds), gas mileage usually decreases rapidly at speeds above 60 mph. You can assume that each 5 mph you drive over 60 mph is like paying an additional $0.30 per gallon for gas. Observing the speed limit is also safer. Fuel economy benefit: 7-23%.
  • Remove Excess Weight: Avoid keeping unnecessary items in your vehicle, especially heavy ones. An extra 100 pounds in your vehicle could reduce your MPG by up to 2%. The reduction is based on the percentage of extra weight relative to the vehicle’s weight and affects smaller vehicles more than larger ones.

So let’s say we had a president who could inspire the nation to drive safer while saving money and reducing oil consumption and pollution.
How much could we save? Let’s be conservative here and just say 20% — after all, I’m sure Limbaugh’s dittoheads will keep driving dangerously and inefficiently no matter what anyone says. That’s 1,800,000 barrels a day. That’s two ANWRs. That’s twelve times what is currently blocked by the Congressional moratorium on coastal drilling.

So being conservative — or at least, being someone who cares about human life and the nation’s economic health and well-being — the nation could save some 2.5 to 3 million barrels a day through better automotive maintenance and smarter driving.

Looks like Obama is right and Limbaugh is wrong. What a shock.

If only we could find a visionary president who could inspire Americans during these troubled times.

23 Responses to DOE/EPA say Obama’s right, Limbaugh’s wrong: More oil can be found in your car than offshore

  1. Rick C says:


    I knew I could count on you! I heard this pile of poop argument, when during a moment of weakness; I went to the AM dial and listened to Limbaugh’s program. I knew he was wrong and I was going to check with DOE/EIA myself but you beat me to it Joe. So yes if you drive sensibly and keep your car properly maintained you can save on gas BIG TIME. I employ some hypermiling techniques (sorry trolls no tractor trailer drafting or other such dangerously bad habits) and the mileage on my 2000 Toyota Camry 2.2 l 4 cyl. car has gone up from its EPA rated 24 mpg to 32.01 when I checked at my last fill up. I still use my A/C to but I do it efficiently and I still keep my car cool in heat sweltering Houston Texas.

  2. ecostew says:

    From NRDC’s Switchboard:

    Let’s do a few comparisons:

    Number of passenger vehicles in the U.S.: 251 million
    Number of passenger vehicles in China: 15.2 million

    Population of the U.S.: 300 million
    Population of China: 1.3 billion

    Annual car sales in the U.S.: 16.1 million (2007)
    Annual car sales in China: 8.8 million (2007)

    Average American’s annual gasoline consumption: 1,635.2 liters (2003)
    Average Chinese’s annual gasoline consumption: 44.6 (2003)

    Oil consumption in the U.S.: 20.7 million barrels/day
    Oil consumption in China: 8 million barrels/day

    U.S. fuel economy standards: 24.8 mpg now (cars and light trucks combined), 35 mpg in 2020
    Chinese fuel economy standards now: 36 mpg now, 43 mpg in 2009

  3. pete says:

    You’re calculations just don’t quite work for me. You get to a “conservative” 10% from the keeping your car in shape list. In BC where I live, our Air Care emissions testing has a failure rate of 10% so if that’s consistent, then you’ll be getting your 4% efficiency gain on only 10% of the cars or .4% total efficiency gain – maybe .6% if we factor in the people with serious problems. Clogged air filter – how many cars have a clogged air filter to the extent where you get a significant drop in fuel mileage? 10% ? Tire inflation – there’s probably lots of people who drive around with under inflated tires to some extent so lets make this one a generous 2%. Type of engine oil – maybe another .5% total gain. For a total of about 4%. And that’s if everybody who has these problems gets them fixed. Significant still, but quite a bit lower than your conservative guestimate.

    Driving more efficiently. #1 (I don’t think rapid acceleration and braking is particularly prevalent on most highway trips) and #2 are basically the same thing aren’t they? yet one gets to 33% and one gets 7%-23%. Once again, not everyone speeds and if half the miles are in the city, I find it hard to believe that you could get above 10% total here. Another 1% for a total of 11%.

    I agree that this is significant and should definitely be a priority, but one of the reasons I frequent this blog is that I find your numbers to be pretty reliable and well thought out so it concerns me to see numbers which seem hyped up. I think using more realistic numbers will make this post just as strong (1.4 MBD savings is significant) and provide less fodder for the denier/delayer group.

  4. Joe says:

    I think 25% to 30% is about right. I stand by the EPA/DOE numbers.

    I would grant that 10% may be on the high side for what better maintaining your car would do — although I think the tire pressure thing is a bigger deal since the Toyota manual for the Prius I drive has a much lower tire pressure recommendation then what the most efficient people online recommend. I actually think it makes more sense to include removing excess weight in this section. Still, if you want to put “keeping your car in shape” at 5% to 10%, I won’t lose any sleep.

    As for what you “find hard to believe,” — there I can’t help you. Aggressive driving and observing the speed limit are not the same thing, although they can overlap a little. If people drove sensibly (i.e. safely) and the speed limit, they would save large amounts of gasoline. I think 20% is about right for the kind of driving I see here in United States. Maybe people drive better in Canada.

    Now I left out all the other driving recommendations. Using cruise control wherever possible. Don’t idle. Combine trips. Minimize discretionary travel. That is probably another 5% at least.

    So I think 25% to 30% is about right. It is certainly a vastly larger amount of oil than we would ever find in coastal waters.

  5. Rick C says:

    I stand behind the 25% to 30% DOE/EIA fuel efficiency increase figures too because I have experienced the result myself from sensible driving with properly inflated tires, and a properly maintained engine.

    BTW, the 24 mpg to 32.01 mpg fuel increase in my 4 cyl. 2.2 l 2000 yr. Camry was for city driving.

  6. Mark Shapiro says:

    Remember also the last time we seriously addressed mileage- 1975 to 1985 (approx) we busted OPEC’s pricing power. Oil dropped below $10 a barrel in 1986.

    A good start: jawbone the oil companies to put free air pumps back in the gas stations, and encourage people to save gas, lives, and money with correc tire pressure.

  7. Chris says:

    Regarding highway driving habits, from the front page of the Houston Chronicle in the heart of Limbaugh listening country.

    A couple of reporters set their cruise controls to 60mph and drive all of Houston’s major highways over 2 days. They count how many cars pass them, and how many cars they pass. It’s not even close: the second day was a shut-out.

    Yes, it’s anecdotal and also consistent with my casual observations over a recent 6-week visit. Adding my own 2 bits, SUVs and pickup trucks out-number fuel efficient small cars by about 10 to 1.

  8. Paul K says:

    The major mistake in the math is the assumption that no one is currently employing these efficiencies. I already am. I’m sure Joe is too. Rick C obviously is. In fact, I’d bet the same goes for almost every regular reader of climateprogress. The math is specious and so is the argument it supports.

  9. Ronald says:

    All that is speculation.

    I think quite a bit of motor fuel can be saved. But what is needed is real world examples.

    Take an average 100 motor vehicles on the road, check the fuel usage. Do the changes to the cars and test them again. Do the same for the drivers.

    I thought that states could have a rebate on vehicle registration every year, the first 50 dollars on a tune up at a registered tune up shop gets taken off the vehicle registration.

    But the real motor vehicle fuel savings will come with better vehicles and even real time fuel measuring gauges in vehicles. It’s feedback that has a lot to do with decisions we make on how we drive. With no feedback, we drive anyway that gets the job done. If we can see the actual difference, we might make the adjustments.

    It’s when the nations motor vehicle fleet changes to more efficient vehicles that the real changes happen. There’s more fuel in better vehicles than in the off shore drilling.

  10. Lamont says:

    If everyone bought a car with 50% better mpg ( 10 mpg => 15 mpg, 20 mpg => 30 mpg, 30 mpg => 45 mpg) or travelled 33% less miles, then that would shave off 2.5Mbd of consumption.

  11. lxm says:

    The fact that more oil can be saved by driving efficiently is not an argument for not drilling. Whether we drill or not, we should drive as efficiently as possible.

    I understand that additional drilling will not solve the oil crisis, but I believe that drilling should be allowed and that the Democrats position on this question is just wrong.

    If we do not approve drilling now, we may find ten years down the road that there is a critical need for that oil. It is not unlikely that chaos in oil producing nations could cause severe shortages of oil.

    If the nation is slow to act to reduce our dependence on oil, then we will need that oil and we will eventually drill it, no matter what the Democrats, who will no longer be in power, think.

    The no-drill proponents are hypocritical: They will oppose drilling in ANWR and off the coasts of America because they fear environmental damage, but do not oppose drilling anywhere else in the world that will cause similar damage. Similarly the no-drill proponents remind me of the Kennedy’s fight to keep wind farms from marring their view from Martha’s Vineyard. It’s let everybody else suffer, so that we can lead beautiful lives.

    Finally, the amount of damage that might be caused by this additional drilling is minimal compared with the amount of damage that has already been done. So, what are we really saving anyway?

    If this really is a crisis we’re in, then we should pursue all means to alleviate it. While the call to drill is being powered by the high gas prices we pay, there is also the underlying national security issue of dependence on foreign oil. Climate change is important, but it may not be the driving force in this argument.

    I submit that a better position for the Democrats is to go along with additional oil drilling (on national security grounds) in exchange for concessions from the Republicans on funds/programs for alternative energies. This strategy takes the issue off the table for the elections this fall, provides a jump start toward freeing ourselves from oil and provides several years breathing space before the oil wells come on-line.

    It could be that ten years from now that oil will be uneconomic to drill.

  12. Flap49 says:

    Been a truck driver for over 35 yrs, and watching cars and light trucks around me I can say way too many are driving on under inflated tires. I have seen some so bad that I have jumped out of my cab at a red light and told a driver their tire was almost flat. Average drivers just don’t pay
    attention to tires.
    Ronald is right about instant mpg read-outs if people could see how much their heavy right foot is costing them, most would ease up and save some $$$$$$.
    And if someone wants to make millions, invent this, a fairly inexpensive LED read-out that can overlay the tachometer ( does Grandma in her Buick really need or use a tach) and can give you instant mpg.

  13. Dano says:

    And if someone wants to make millions, invent this, a fairly inexpensive LED read-out that can overlay the tachometer ( does Grandma in her Buick really need or use a tach) and can give you instant mpg.


    The GF’s 2000 VW Jetta* has one standard, activated off of her right-hand lever switch on the steering column.



    * Maybe its a Passat. Never can remember.

  14. Paul K says:

    Don’t know what Flap49 drives when he’s not in the truck. Digital readout of real time and cumulative gas mileage is available on just about every car made today. Hit the info button. GM has, from the sixties on, offered a manifold exhaust gauge calibrated to gas mileage. It was standard equipment on the original Chevy Super Sport.

  15. Dano says:

    Thanks PaulK. I don’t drive much and only two vehicles in last two decades, both stripped pickups with no doo-dads, geegaws, fancy gauges.

    Perhaps your comment is even more d*mning about the average Joe’s attention to efficiency…



  16. mike says:

    Joe, do you know when the new EIA report concerning the impacts of increased access to oil and gas resources in the lower 48 comes out? Thanks.

    [JR: Hopefully next week, they say.]

  17. wow gold says:

    i’m study english i want to read your article.If you don’t mind .

  18. Ronald says:

    From what I read, the Prius has a good gauge that’s easy to access and some Prius owners have stated that they have adjusted their driving because of it. I don’t heard of other vehicles with real time fuel gauges.

    I’ve read that a real time, easily read, home electricity gauge works also in reducing electricity. Apparently just telling kids or any of us to make sure we turn off the lights and other avoidances of energy use isn’t always enough to change behavior, there should be a measure of success and failure. Having a gauge in the hallway that’s easily read everytime people leave the house lets people turn off everything before they leave.

    Houses that have gauges such as that has had 15 percent electricity reductions. It matters if a person can compare one months use from another or one days use from another.

  19. Cyril R. says:

    When one is adicted to drugs, does one take more drugs to deal with pains of the adiction, or does one try to get rid of the adiction in earnest?

    Obviously we’ll have to do the latter. Why can’t people see this is the same for oil? In a world with finite investment available, it is such a simple argument.

  20. Kate says:

    I think it’s obvious that your MPG will increase if you keep your car in shape- no one can argue that.

    The problem is- someone should calculate the costs of keeping your car in shape versus paying for the extra fuel if you don’t. That is where the average person might make their decision. I’m actually hoping that the average person will soon think environmentally and then cost will not be the only factor.

  21. TwelveSky2 says:

    The problem is- someone should calculate the costs of keeping your car in shape versus paying for the extra fuel if you don’t.

  22. TwelveSky2 says:

    Perhaps your comment is even more d*mning about the average Joe’s attention to efficiency

  23. I think it’s obvious that your MPG will increase if you keep your car in shape- no one can argue that.