U.S. is net energy exporter! (Psych!)

 

By now you’ve surely read the headlines that proclaim, “US Nears Milestone: Net Fuel Exporter” or “US Becomes Net Oil-Product Exporter” or, the most ambitious and egregious, “U.S. Becomes Net Energy Exporter.” The stories affixed to the headlines certainly have a triumphant air to them, and why shouldn’t they? After four decades of our leaders pining for energy independence and “no more foreign oil” we’ve finally reached our goal. Right?

Not quite. In fact, we are not anywhere near weaning ourselves from foreign oil.

It’s not that the headlines are lying, exactly. The US is, in fact, exporting more products made from crude oil than it imports. Distillate fuel oil is our number one seller, and “finished motor gasoline” is another healthy export. So, overall, our refineries are shipping about 800,000 to 1 million barrels per day more of these refined fuels than the U.S. is shipping in.

While this sounds great, it’s overshadowed by what is left out of the equation: Crude oil. Each day, the U.S. buys nearly 9 million barrels of crude from foreign countries, and we export almost nothing. Throw those numbers in, and the equation gets tilted pretty heavily towards the net importer side: We import 7-8 million barrels of crude oil and crude oil products per day more than we export, and that’s on a good day. In other words, we have nearly 3 billion barrels of imported oil and oil products per year standing between our current state and petroleum independence*.

But that sure as heck isn’t what you’d get out of reading the aforementioned headlines and dozens others like them. The stories below the headlines most often clear things up, but not until half the readers have tweeted or Facebooked or otherwise disseminated the somewhat distorted ideas contained in the headlines. As a result, there’s a growing number of folks out there who think that all that drilling in North Dakota, Colorado and Wyoming is actually doing what the politicians said it would do: Break us of our foreign oil addiction.

That, of course, is not the case. Not only that, but the fact that we are exporting quite a bit of refined fuel may actually be helping to increase prices at the pump (which is part of the reason we want to get off foreign oil, right?) National Public Radio recently gave an interesting explanation for rising gasoline prices: We are able to refine petroleum more cheaply than other places, therefore other countries want to buy refined products from us (which is why we’re not a net exporter), which increases overall demand on our refineries, which results in higher prices for us at home. Confusing, sure, but it kind of makes sense.

And the reason our refineries can operate more cheaply these days is because we have a glut of methane, a.k.a. natural gas, which is at record low prices right now. And natural gas is used to do the major work -- heating up the crude -- in the refining process.

So, it turns out that “Drill baby, drill” doesn't get us to energy independence. It doesn't lower gas prices. It may even cause them, in an indirect way, to go up.

*The U.S. is actually somewhat closer to being a net energy exporter thanks to the 100 million or so tons of coal we shipped to other countries last year. Nevertheless, we’re not there yet. The BTUs in that coal don’t make up for those in the oil that we import -- we’re still more than 6 million barrels (or 1.4 million tons of coal) per day short.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News and a 2011-2012 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • SONORAN INSTITUTE, CEO
    Chief Executive Officer Tucson, Arizona ABOUT SONORAN INSTITUTE Since 1990, the Sonoran Institute has brought together diverse interests to successfully forge effective and enduring conservation...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...