Until Consumer Habits Change, Energy Stocks Should Continue to Shine

It’s amazing that gas prices hit $4 per gallon in Chicago and San Francisco even before the summer driving season officially started. There are several reasons why we are paying so much to fill up our gas tanks but the one that I think is most important is not talked about as much as it should be.

As you can see, SUV sales as a percentage of vehicle sales has more than doubled over a ten-year period. Since SUVs are far less fuel efficient than cars, they account for a large portion of the increased oil demand in the United States.

There is no doubt that the Iraq war is contributing to high energy prices (oil production there is below pre-war levels), as is rising demand from emerging economies like China and India. However, the habits of the U.S. consumer is the largest contributor to our country’s sky-high energy use, and as a result, record-high prices. After all, what we do in this country has a profound effect on the energy market. Despite only representing 5% of the world population, we consume 25% of its oil.

The way I see it, the culprit is the rise of the sport utility vehicle in the United States. Many people who drive SUVs are quick to complain about paying $60 to $70 or more to fill up their tanks each week and accuse the oil companies of gauging prices (which is a ridiculous, baseless claim), but they are a large part of the reason gas prices are north of $3 per gallon nationally as I write this.

If you don’t believe that America’s love affair with SUVs is affecting gas prices, one glance at the numbers might change your mind. The statistics below are from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an organization that tracks U.S. energy use very precisely. I don’t think it is just a coincidence that there has been a direct correlation between SUV sales, petroleum use, and gas prices. After all, the oil markets are based on supply and demand. With worldwide supply flattening out, demand is crucial in determining price levels.

I am not a fan of heavy government involvement as far as dictating human behavior is concerned, but I would not be opposed to increasing incentives for people to ditch their SUV, as well as higher CAFE standards for fuel efficiency. If we could reverse the trend of SUV prominence, oil demand is this country would drop, and prices would follow suit.

For those who need to drive SUVs, that’s fine, but they need to understand that higher gas prices might be a cost of driving a larger vehicle, and that blaming the oil companies for high prices is ignoring how the global oil market works. The biggest improvement could come from those who own SUVs without a real need for it.

Until driving habits in the U.S. change, gas prices will remain high and oil companies will continue to reap the benefits on their income statements. As long as the trend shown in the graphic above remains intact, investors should continue to hold a healthy dose of energy stocks in their portfolios.