U.S. oil imports drop sharply; so what does it mean?

U.S. oil production peaked in 1970; U.S. oil consumption did not. As a logical result, the importation of oil from other countries has increased over the decades until it accounted for two thirds of the petroleum used in the United States in 2008. However, that rise has not been steady. Several times over the years there have been periods when imports held steady – or even declined – and, according to an article in the Kansas City Star, one of those times is now. In 2010, U.S. oil imports didn't just ease, they plummeted, falling to 49 percent of consumption.

Sadly, that number is not quite the energy miracle it may seem. One big change in the numbers came not from the amount of oil flowing in, but from better measurements of the oil going the other way. In the past, the official calculation for oil imports failed to account for much of the oil that's brought into the country to be processed and then exported as refined gasoline or other products. Changing how this is measured may seem like playing with the books, but excluding the exported fuel makes for a more accurate measure of what is imported for consumption in the U.S. The U.S. actually exports more gasoline than it imports (that's gasoline, not oil) so accounting for this made-in-the-USA gas contributes to lowering the import figures.

The U.S. is also benefiting from some significant production increases. The numbers are not approaching the levels at the national peak, but new technology is returning U.S. production to values not seen in a decade. Also, both biofuel production and the use of liquified natural gas have increased enough to cut into the need for imported oil. Finally, there's another factor making a big difference: conservation in the form of fewer miles driven and high mileage vehicles. Of course, some of that conservation may not be by choice, as some drivers find the price of a trip too dear.

The significance of increasing use of other fuels and conservation can be seen by looking at the source of oil sent to refineries. The percentage of imported oil processed in the U.S. did drop, but only from 66 to 62 percent; a much smaller decline. Most of the oil reaching U.S. refineries is still coming from sources outside the U.S. Thus, the import percentage at the refinery level fell only four percent, but imported oil consumed fell by 17 percent because by using other fuel sources and using less gas overall, more of the gas refined in the U.S. could be turned around and sent elsewhere.

Sure, it would be great to see a decline like this happening in the middle of an economic boom, but decreased dependence on imported oil seems like a good idea at any time.

Share This Photo X