You’ve probably heard a lot recently about how the United States is brimming with energy production and will soon be achieving energy independence – perhaps becoming the world’s greatest producer of oil and even exporting the product to the Middle East.
Well, here are the figures. It’s a modest trend and there’s still a huge gap between imports and exports, but the lines are headed in the right direction. If they continue to move this way . . . . ah, but that’s always a big “if.”
The two graphs represent imports and exports in “quads” – quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs). They are on the same scale and make an easy comparison.
The graph at left shows imports, which have been climbing steadily since the 1950s. (The last year we had net exports of petroleum was 1952.) There was a huge jump after 1970 when our domestic oil production peaked. This led to the Arab Oil Embargo. After 1980, when oil price controls were removed and the nation became conservation conscious, imports plunged. But the adjustment was only temporary and after 1986 the pattern of declining production and increased consumption reasserted itself. Imports climbed to a peak around 2006. Eighty-six percent of this energy is in the form of oil. We import a little gas from the Caribbean and negligible amounts of coal and electricity, but most of it is petroleum.
Now the trend has reversed again and imports are declining. Part of this is the result of the recession and the decline in economic activity, part is the development of hydrofracking, which has opened up unconventional sources such as Bakken oil and shale gas. Will the trend continue? Who knows?
On the export side, there has been very little to report until the last six years when the new unconventional sources began to develop. Now we are sending 10 quads abroad after never having exported more than five. Most of this is finished petroleum products, since we still have some of the most advanced refineries in the world, even though we haven’t built any new ones in twenty years. We export almost no crude oil but there has been an uptick in coal exports as coal plants shut down in this country and the mining companies begin to look abroad. The figures may experience an even bigger spurt if we start exporting natural gas.
Altogether we still export three times as much energy as we export. But that’s a big improvement from 2002, when we were importing eight times as much. The gap is still wide but the numbers are moving in a positive direction.