Has America Really Become a Net Petroleum Exporter?

A blog about business and economics.
Nov. 30 2011 8:33 AM

America Is Still A Giant Oil Importer

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 10: Boats in the J105 class sail past a tanker coming in to port during the Rolex Big Boat Series regatta hosted by the St. Francis Yacht Club on September 10, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Some very exciting and cw-upending news was reported yesterday in The Wall Street Journal, where citing Energy Information Agency data they say "U.S. exports of gasoline, diesel and other oil-based fuels are soaring, putting the nation on track to be a net exporter of petroleum products in 2011 for the first time in 62 years."

Really? Before you get too excited about this particular Slate pitch note that oil is not a "petroleum product." Petroleum products are fuels. Oil is the stuff you make petroleum products out of. Iran is a net importer of petroleum products because it lacks the refinery capacity to make all the fuel it needs. The United States may be becoming a net exporter of petroleum products thanks to increased domestic capacity and surging foreign demand, but we're still a huge importer of foreign energy. The WSJ writes that "the U.S. sent abroad 753.4 million barrels of everything from gasoline to jet fuel in the first nine months of this year, while it imported 689.4 million barrels." But at the same time, we're importing about 9 million barrels of crude oil every single day. Of course petroleum products are more valuable than crude oil, so it's possible in principle to be running a petroleum surplus even while importing crude. But we're not. Here's a chart I made based on US Department of Commerce data of America's net imports, in dollar terms, of petroleum:

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As you can see, we're importing. And we're importing a lot. In 2010, oil accounted for about 20 percent of the total American trade deficit. And if increased demand abroad pushes oil prices higher, that's only going to be worse news for a country like ours with extremely high per capita levels of oil consumption. If America ever wants to become a net exporter, it's almost certainly the case that a large share of the adjustment will have to come through decreased oil consumption. 

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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