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IHS: US gasoline demand exceeds 2020 levels for first time; still trails pre-pandemic demand significantly

Year-on-year gasoline sales in the United States have moved into positive territory for the first time on the one-year anniversary of the first major declines that resulted from COVID-induced stay at home orders. However, demand still trails pre-pandemic levels by a considerable margin, according to the latest data from Oil Price Information Service (OPIS) by IHS Markit.

US gasoline same-store sales in gallons for the week ending 20 March 2021 were 10.1% higher than 2020, according to OPIS Demand, a weekly survey of more than 25,000 fuel stations nationwide. Nevertheless, same-store gasoline sales were still 16% below pre-pandemic levels.


OPIS Demand Pro weekly gasoline sales volumes sourced directly from over 26,000 stations in the United States. Week Ending March 20, 2021 compared to 2019 and 2020. Source: OPIS by IHS Markit

Prior to the week ending 20 March 2021, gasoline volumes had mostly hovered in the range of 15% to 18% below prior-year levels since the start of 2021. The main exception was the week ending 20 February, which saw a year-on-year decline of 22.4% due to impacts from Winter Storm Uri.

Retail gasoline sales volumes moving into positive territory compared to prior-year numbers for the week ending March 20 are not due to a major increase in demand but more reflect the massive declines that were seen at the pump during the same period last year. The week ending 21 March 2020 saw volumes trail 2019 levels by 23.6%, the first week in a four-week stretch that saw weekly US gasoline sales volumes plummet to levels not seen since the Nixon Administration was in office in the early 1970s, culminating with volumes 47.5% behind prior-year levels the week ending 11 April.

The extent of the current rebound varies by region. The Southwest region surpassed 2020 volumes by 15%. Meanwhile, the Southeastern part of the United States surpassed 2020 levels by only 8.6%, largely due to many states in the Southeast not moving as quickly to mandated stay at home orders as the rest of the country did last year.

The regional disparity in gasoline demand recovery is also apparent when looking at state-level data. California saw some of the earliest declines in gallons sold due to the west coast largely being the early epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Compared to last year, gasoline sales are up 14.6% in California, however volumes still trail same-week 2019 by 22.7% on a same-store basis.

Florida, on the other hand, was not as quick to enact quarantine mandates, and the data paints a very different demand picture. Fuel retailers in Florida saw a much-smaller 6.4% increase versus last year, but only trail demand levels from two years ago by 11.2%.

There is optimism that additional “pent up” demand could be released this summer, with the Biden Administration announcing that every adult in the US will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine no later than 1 May.

It is possible that gasoline demand could come close to or even surpass pre-pandemic levels at times, IHS said. But still to be determined are the lasting impacts to work, lifestyle and consumer habits.

The logic that gasoline demand will suddenly and permanently return to pre-pandemic levels fails to take into account the lingering effects of unemployment, dramatic cuts in urban, suburban and rural events, and hybrid models for commuting that allow for more people working from home. Even as the country gets back to normal, we are still to discover what the ‘new normal’ means.

—Tom Kloza, global head of energy analysis, OPIS by IHS Markit


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