We’re not a net exporter of oil yet, and certainly not energy independent

Contrary to what we’ve heard, the United States does not export more oil than it imports. We’re actually far from energy independent. No amount of embellishing government statistics changes those facts.

Last month Bloomberg broke news of what sounded like a triumph of American exceptionalism: “The U.S. Just Became a Net Oil Exporter for the First Time in 75 Years.” The language was unequivocal in its praise of the domestic oil industry, which has leveraged fracking wells in Texas and North Dakota to produce record amounts of oil, approaching 12 million barrels a day. But the story also was seeded with caveats that should have tamped down enthusiasm:

“On paper, the shift to net oil exports means that the U.S. is today energy independent, achieving a rhetorical aspiration for generations of American politicians, from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush. Yet, it’s a paper tiger achievement: In reality, the U.S. remains exposed to global energy prices, still affected by the old geopolitics of the Middle East.”

Why was it a paper tiger achievement? Long story short, the data included on the Weekly Petroleum Status Report, a document produced by the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA), doesn’t just include oil. There’s everything under the sun that’s refined from oil.  If you want to read all 62 pages, feel free. You can learn all about kerosene and heating oil and distillate and butylene, and so much more!

When you add it all up, yes, the U.S. did export more “petroleum products” (9.1 million barrels a day) than it imported (8.8 million) during the week ended Nov. 30, 2018.

So mission accomplished, right? A closer examination reveals a few buzz-kills: Among that export total was both crude oil and “finished products.” One of those finished products listed is ethanol, the corn-derived vehicle fuel. If ethanol is a petroleum product, so is Gatorade. We also counted as exports gasoline made at U.S. refineries, using oil imported from other places.

“Nearly 2.8 million barrels per day of our exports are definitely not from crude oil, and an extra 300,000 is essentially the ‘cheap junk’ left at the end of the barrel that is dirty and hardly useful,” Fuel Freedom policy analyst Gal Sitty said.

The more important ledger item is crude oil. That’s what’s used to make the gasoline and diesel that powers the 250 million light-duty vehicles on the road in the U.S. And American drillers did indeed produce a lot of that for the week ending Nov. 30 — 11.7 million barrels a day. Since the ban on U.S. oil exports was lifted in 2015, we also ship a lot around the world; in late November we exported 3.2 million barrels a day. But we also imported 7.2 million barrels a day, for a net import of 4.0 million barrels a day. That’s the key number.

Robert Rapier, writing in Forbes, has a piece that not only explains the shell game going on with the numbers, it undercuts this notion that we’ve suddenly reached self-sufficiency. As far as he could tell, “Bloomberg is correct” in saying the U.S. had not been a net exporter of oil products for any length of time since the mid-1940s. “But that’s not what the headline claimed. The headline said ‘oil.’ The U.S. is still a net importer of oil to the tune of 4.0 million BPD.”

He added:

“So the bottom line is that we aren’t net exporters of crude oil, and we aren’t energy independent. But, the U.S. has trended in that direction for over a decade.”

Many analysts acknowledged that our net-exporter status was likely to be short-lived, and they were right: We haven’t pulled off the feat since November. According to the EIA latest report, for the week ended Jan. 11, we logged a net export of all petroleum products of 2.2 million barrels a day. Our “energy independence” lasted all of a week.

As much as we’re drilling, we can’t supply enough oil to meet domestic demand, which is about 20 million barrels a day, the vast majority of that for transportation. We’re still beholden to foreign governments, including OPEC members like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Venezuela, to keep our economy functioning. And we won’t be free of our dependence on oil until we make petroleum alternatives like ethanol more widely available at the pump.

You can tell the hollowness of our brief accomplishment by how worried OPEC is. It’s not. Khalid al Falih, the Saudi energy minister, told CNN that corrective measures are “easily within our control” to keep a tight lid on supply and ensure that prices rise. Which they are — Brent crude is up 24.3 percent since Christmas Eve. When OPEC wants prices to go up, they go up.

 

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