U.S. fuel sales move into positive territory for first time since pandemic's start

On the one-year anniversary of the major declines in gasoline sales due to stay-at-home orders prompted by COID-19, year-on-year gasoline sales in the United States are positive for the first time since the pandemic began.

Despite this, demand is still less than pre-pandemic levels by a considerable margin, according to the latest data from OPIS by IHS Markit.

U.S. gasoline same-store sales in gallons for the week ending March 20 were 10.1 percent higher than the same week in 2020, according to OPIS Demand, a weekly survey of more than 25,000 fuel stations across the country. At the same time, same-store gasoline sales were 16 percent below pre-pandemic levels.

"The year-on-year increase in fuel demand from March 2020 is certainly welcome news for the recovery of the economy and the beginning of the return to normal life for the American people," said Brian Norris, executive director of retail fuels, OPIS by IHS Markit. "But the real measure of recovery will be a return to pre-pandemic levels. It's there that progress remains slow and, looking at gasoline, we still have a long way to go."

Prior to the week ending March 20, gasoline volumes primarily remained in the range of 15 percent to 18 percent below prior-year levels since the start of 2021, with the exception of the week ending Feb. 20, which experienced a year-on-year decline of 22.4 percent due to the impacts of a major winter storm that affected large areas of North America.

Some speculate that "pent-up" demand could release in the summer as COVID-19 vaccinations increase, but long-term impacts on work, lifestyle and consumer habits have yet to be determined, OPIS noted.

"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," said Tom Kloza, global head of energy analysis, OPIS by IHS Markit. "Even as the country gets back to normal, we are still to discover what the 'new normal' means."