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Clarification Needed: U.S. Oil Imports vs Energy Imports

15 Nov

In yesterday’s post about the U.S. becoming the world’s largest oil producer by 2020, the Wall Street Journal (drawing correctly upon the IEA report)  wrote “The result is a continued fall in U.S. oil imports (currently at 20% of its needs) to the extent that North America becomes a net oil exporter around 2030.” After posting that passage yesterday, I continued to be troubled by what is some sloppy reporting, First, the “currently at 20% of its needs” implies this the amount of imported oil needed to meet U.S. needs, and, second, is the change of scale from discussing U.S. oil production to referring to “North America” in the final sentence. Clearly including Canada in the oil import/export picture changes the picture considerably since that country’s energy needs and supplies are very, very different than those in the U.S. But let’s pass over that chauvinistic error and focus on the 20% figure since most of know that almost half of the U.S. oil needs come from imports.

More precisely, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (the EIA, not to be confused with the global IEA that put out the report cited in yesterday’s post), in 2011 the U.S. imported 45% of the oil needs, which they proudly add was the lowest percentage of imported oil since 1996 and resulted from decreased domestic consumption coupled with increased domestic production. (Just in case you’ve forgotten where our imported oil comes from I’ve included that data at the end of this post)

So what’s this 20% figure used by the WSJ? Although I must do more research on this topic, my guess at this point is that the reporter (and maybe even the IEA) is referring instead to the total energy imports of the U.S. Oil, after all, despite the importance of gasoline, is not by any means the major source of energy for the U.S. Natural gas is now the leading source, responsible for 30% of our energy, having recently displaced King Coal, which now accounts for 28% but is losing share rapidly as power plants convert to natural gas.  Oil is in 3d place, producing only 15% of the total U.S. energy.  And since the U.S. has plentiful supplies of both natural gas and coal (so much so that we’re exporting vast amounts of both fossil fuels), our total energy import percentage is very different—and much lower—than our oil import needs. 

Now, for those who need to be reminded of where our imported oil comes from, here are the top 5 sources (in 2011) with the percentage they fulfill of total oil imports: Canada, 29%; Saudi Arabia, 14%; Venezuela, 11%; Nigeria, 10%, and Mexico, 8%. The source of these data is here.

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