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Energy Independence: What It Means and How We Measure It

  • The debate over U.S. energy independence is often muddled by differing definitions and political rhetoric.
  • A practical definition of energy independence is producing more energy than consumed domestically.
  • The U.S. has expanded its energy independence since 2019, with growing surpluses under both the Trump and Biden administrations.
United States Energy

The idea of U.S. energy independence remains a hot topic, even making an appearance at the recent presidential debate. Everyone seems to have an opinion on it, even though many people have trouble defining what it means.

Establishing Consistent Terminology

It’s important to understand that the following two statements are each true under a consistent definition of energy independence.

  1. If the U.S. is not energy independent under Joe Biden, then it was never energy independent under Donald Trump.
  2. If the U.S. was energy independent under Donald Trump, then energy independence has grown to record levels under Joe Biden.

Under no scenario did the U.S. become energy independent under Trump and lose it under Biden.

Let’s briefly review the concepts. It’s important to establish definitions to ensure we are talking about the same thing.

Definition 1: Zero Imports

There are two ways to think about energy independence. One definition is that we don’t import any energy. That would be true energy independence. Call this the Zero Imports Definition.

I don’t find this definition very useful, due to the globalized nature of energy markets. The U.S. imports some energy to convert it into products for export. We began importing crude oil in the U.S. before 1950, and we have imported it every year since.

Under this definition, the U.S. hasn’t been energy independent in at least 75 years. This definition highlights how interdependent global energy supplies are, emphasizing that this sort of energy independence is neither necessary nor economically desirable.

Thus, the notion, “President Trump made us energy independent”, is not true under the Zero Imports Definition. During President Trump’s term, the U.S. imported an average of 9.3 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil and finished products. By the Zero Imports Definition, Statement 1 above holds: We weren’t energy independent under Trump or Biden.

Definition 2: Energy Surplus

The Energy Surplus Definition is more useful in my view. That defines energy independence as producing more energy than we consume. Based on that definition, even if we import some energy, the fact that we produce more than enough to satisfy our needs would mean the U.S. is energy independent.

The Energy Surplus Definition is what Trump is using when he said we became energy independent while he was in office. If we consider this definition, in 2019 the U.S. had an energy surplus for the first time since at least the 1940s. This can be seen in the following graphic when the production line barely exceeds the consumption line for the first time in 2019.

Record Energy Surplus 2023

A Record Energy Surplus in 2023. ENERGY INFORMATION ADMINISTRATION

Net U.S. energy imports hit a record high in 2005, but since then have steadily declined due to the surge of oil and gas production released by the shale boom. In 2019, net U.S. energy imports became net exports, and that is the measure by which many — including Donald Trump — declared energy independence.

However, we didn’t lose this status under Joe Biden. To the contrary, U.S. oil and gas production continued to grow, as shown in the next graphic. In 2022 the net energy surplus reached 5.94 quadrillion BTUs (quads), which was the highest level in at least 70 years.

US Primary Energy by Source

U.S. Primary Energy Production by Source. ENERGY INFORMATION ADMINISTRATION

I covered this development a year ago in U.S. Energy Independence Soars To Highest Level In Over 70 Years. But last week the EIA updated the numbers to include 2023. (They also revised 2022 down to 5.83 quads, which was still higher than any excess under Trump).

The net energy surplus in 2023 grew to 7.80 quads — the highest number on record. In 2019, that number had been only 0.61 quads of net energy surplus. Thus, Statement 2 above is correct. If you are using energy surplus as a measure of energy independence, there have now been three consecutive annual surpluses that exceeded those under Donald Trump.

Conclusions

In summary, the debate over U.S. energy independence is often muddled by differing definitions and political rhetoric. True energy independence, characterized by zero energy imports, is neither practical nor reflective of the interconnected nature of global energy markets.

Instead, a more pragmatic definition—producing more energy than consumed domestically—offers a clearer perspective. Under this measure, the U.S. has not only achieved but also expanded its energy independence since 2019, with growing surpluses under both the Trump and Biden administrations.

The consistent growth in net energy production, particularly driven by advancements in oil and gas extraction technologies, underscores the nation’s robust energy sector. As we move forward, it’s crucial to continue fostering policies that support a secure and resilient energy future for the United States.

By Robert Rapier

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  • George Doolittle on July 06 2024 said:
    The USA is well beyond energy independent and in fact is the World's largest energy exporter something that has been true for some time now ("selling coal to Newcastle.") all of this very expensive energy product is denominated in US Dollars as well and yes still includes coal very much so and big time. One aspect has nothing to do with anything Federal Government at all does as well namely the massive amounts of dirt cheap natural gas that continues to flood the US economy all domestically produced near all existing on account of oil prices being so high and that one gets natural gas as one successfully gets oil. This has led to the extraordinary situation of negative pricing for both natural gas and electricity futures between West Texas and Southern California so a very impressive energy *FREEDOM* indeed. No one else in the World has this reality.
  • Mamdouh Salameh on July 06 2024 said:
    If it is meant by energy independence that the United States doesn't import any energy, then it isn't no matter how much hype is done or whatever interpretations are attached to it.

    While the United States is self sufficient in coal and natural gas, it isn't in crude oil. It still imports an estimated 8.0 million barrels.

    And while the US might be producing more energy than it consumes, as long as it continues to import oil and this is expected to continue well into the future, then it will always be vulnerable to oil shocks and dependent on foreign oil sources to satisfy its needs. In this situation, having surplus energy is irrelevant.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Global Energy Expert
  • Dhanraj on July 06 2024 said:
    producing more than consuming has several meanings and can be looked at from different angles, depending on the interest/aim of the missive.

    Energy Comsumption Efficiency improvements, which can result in a reduction of domestic consumption.

    increase of solar PV/DER uptake. This one is self-explanatory.

    Energy Export Market - With the US having its grid(s) connected to other neighboring countries, this can also inform on an increase of energy exports.

    Energy Production Efficiency - it can also be the case where production efficiency dropped, hence the increased of primary energy numbers.

    This is certainly an article that peaks the mind of any energy enthusiast. However, to better understand the true picture or to put hard facts on the table, the hard numbers of the different energy economic sectors are required. These are subject matters where the hard numbers are needed to understand the flow of energy, especially when considering an energy open market.

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