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Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has also appeared in The Christian Science…

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The Truth About U.S. Energy Dominance

Texas

Much of the media coverage of the American energy industry implies that America has become a vast and growing exporter of energy to the rest of the world and that this has created a sort of "energy dominance" for the country on the world stage.

Whether such reports qualify as so-called "fake news" depends very much on three things: 1) How one defines "fake news," 2) whether writers of such reports qualify the words "imports" and "exports" with the word "net" and 3) which energy sources they are discussing.

In this case let's define "fake news" as claims that official, publicly available statistics show plainly to be false. By that criterion anyone who claims that the United States is a net energy exporter would certainly be guilty of propagating "fake news."

Energy statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) show that in November 2017 (the most recent month for which figures are available) the United States had net imports 329.5 trillion BTUs of energy in all its forms.* That's down from a peak of 2.74 quadrillion BTUs in August 2006, something that is certainly a turnabout from the previous trend. But all claims that the United States is a net energy exporter must be labeled as unequivocally false.

It turns out, however, that most people making misleading claims about America's energy situation don't actually say or write things which are technically false. What they do is use language which intentionally or unintentionally misleads the reader or listener.

For example, the claim that the United States is an exporter of crude oil is true. But that claim is entirely misleading. While the United States exports about 1.5 million barrels a day (mbpd) of crude oil, it also imports 7.5 mbpd. That puts the net imports of crude oil at about 6 mbpd. (All numbers are four-week averages as of February 23.) This reality is simply not conveyed by the unqualified statement that the United States is an oil exporter. Those making such a claim either haven't done their research, are sloppy writers or intend to mislead. Related: China Is Single-Handedly Solving The Gas Glut

This curious state of affairs in American crude oil imports and exports results from not having enough refining capacity for the kind of oil coming out of the country's shale oil deposits, more properly called tight oil. That oil is too "light" for many American refineries. Therefore, much of it is shipped abroad to refineries with the capability to refine it. The United States tends to import heavier crudes that match its overall refinery capabilities.

The United States has more refinery capacity than it needs for its own consumption of petroleum products such as gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and heating oil. Some of that capacity has long been used to produce these products for export—for over 30 years, in fact.

The EIA reports 4.5 mbpd of these products shipped abroad as the four-week average as of February 23. But that overstates the case since the number includes an enigmatic category called "Other Oil" which consists primarily of natural gas plant liquids (products such as ethane, propane and butane) that are simply not part of the petroleum production stream. Subtracting those gives us about 3 mbpd which are curiously offset by imports of those same products of about 1 mbpd. That puts the net exports of petroleum products strictly speaking at about 2 mbpd—significant, but not enough to make the United States a net exporter of crude oil and petroleum products combined. The country remains a net importer of about 4 mbpd of those combined products.

When it comes to natural gas, it turns out the United States is just barely a net exporter. In 2017 the country exported 3.17 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas and imported 3.04 tcf. America is hardly a major force in the natural gas export market today. There are those who claim, however, that it will become one because of future growth in U.S. natural gas production. This includes the EIA.

The EIA's record for long-term forecasts, however, is abysmal. (To see how abysmal, read here and here.) With regard to U.S. natural gas production, a private study based on actual natural gas well histories (rather than optimistic claims from the industry) suggests that production in 2050 will be only a fraction of what it is today. As the study points out, natural gas plays in shale basins are the only ones with growing production, and four of the six major shale gas plays are already in steep decline. It is difficult to see how such trends can lead to a major increase in U.S. natural gas production through 2050. (It is well to remember that oil and gas executives are on a constant hunt for capital with which to fund new drilling. Not surprisingly, it pays them to be optimistic when courting investors either in person or through the media.)

As for coal, the United States has long been self-sufficient in coal and currently exports about 3 percent of its production on a net basis according to EIA statistics.

There are connections between the U.S. and Canadian electricity grids. The Canadians send more electricity to the United States than the United States sends to Canada which, of course, makes the United States a net importer of Canadian electricity.

The United States does mine and process uranium for nuclear power stations. But almost 90 percent of the uranium purchased for American reactors must be imported.

The current picture of American energy production is decidedly not one of "dominance." Instead, though rising production of oil and natural gas has reduced dependence on foreign energy supplies, the country remains dependent on imported oil, a situation that even the ever optimistic EIA does not expect to change through 2050. Related: Trump’s Tariffs Lead To Selloff In Oil Markets

For those who say they know the future of energy production in the United States, I recommend reading the linked critiques above of previous major long-term energy forecasts. Making energy policy based on long-term forecasts that have proven again and again to be wildly mistaken is not just unwise, but dangerous. An infrastructure built for overly optimistic projections of supply for a particular fuel—natural gas fired electricity generating plants come to mind—could end up worthless or at the very least create tense and destabilizing competition for fuel supplies that don't grow as expected.

*It's worth noting that nobody was touting American "energy dominance" when the net energy import number last hovered around this value in the early 1980s.

By Kurt Cobb

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  • Mamdouh G Salameh on March 06 2018 said:
    May I congratulate you, Mr Kurt Cobb, on a very objective, informative and balanced article. Your article is a breath of fresh air from the exaggerations, distortions and false claims made by many analysts and organizations such as the EIA, IEA, BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy and their mouthpiece, the Financial Times.

    The EIA, IEA, BP and the Financial Times are in cahoots over hyping about US shale oil production and making outlandish claims about the US oil production hitting 11 million barrels a day (mbd) by December 2018 or early 2019 or the US becoming a net oil exporter by 2023 or the US overtaking Russia and Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer this year on next at the latest. Your article exposes these false claims and pours cold water on their motivations.

    The EIA’s and BP Statistical Review of World Energy’s calculation of US oil production is misleading and inaccurate. Both BP and EIA include in their calculations NGLs which come from natural gas wells as well as such gases as ethane, propane, butane and pentanes which don’t qualify as crude oil and condensates in its crude oil count. The real question is whether natural gas plant liquids can be sold as oil on the world market. The answer is an emphatic “No”. In fact, major oil exchanges accept neither natural gas plant liquids nor lease condensates as satisfactory delivery for crude oil. And if major exchanges don’t accept natural gas liquids as crude oil, then they are not crude oil or as a well-known Texan oilman, Jeffrey Brown, pointed out:” If what you are selling can’t be sold on the world market as crude oil, then it’s not crude oil”.

    The same logic applies to US proven oil reserves.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Randy Verret on March 06 2018 said:
    As a retired oil & gas operative, I too agree with the author. Shale is "over-hyped" and many shale plays are not (really) a sustainable business model for more than a few years if you objectively look at the facts. I do believe that the ongoing U.S oil production increases are a temporary "windfall" and I'd like to see the conversation shifting to developing a comprehensive national energy policy. We need to be proactively focusing on REAL energy alternatives on how we will sensibly transition throughout the rest of this century away from fossil fuels. My hope is that all the "hype" and "vilification" that seems to dominate the media in the energy arena will gradually shift to a more practical discussion. NO, we won't be 100% "renewables" (whatever that means) by 2050, but let's STOP being fixated about surpassing the Russians & Saudi's in oil production. How about changing the energy narrative to some sort of STRATEGY and how we want to look in 2100 and how we want to get there? Now THAT is a VISION I can embrace...
  • Lee James on March 06 2018 said:
    Well said, Rand Verret.

    We do need to be more forward looking. We do need a sensible national energy strategy for what comes next. What we are doing today to bring in oil and gas is looking pretty extreme and not all that sustainable.
  • Koen on March 07 2018 said:
    Academic research should be focused mainly on new methods for energy conversion, energy distribution, and energy storage. However, only a very small portion of all scientific papers are dedicated to this important research subject. In stead, physicist are gazing at the cosmos or "finding Higgs", a complete waste of money and talent, considering the urgent problem of replacing our outdated energy infrastructure. Technicians have become little kids who play with software in order to make a "smart society" that is destined to collapse and to disappear.

    This is the biggest mistake in the history of 'Western civilization' and Science & Technology in general (so eagerly copied and used by the 'non Westerner'). We MUST review and evaluate everything we know about the exact sciences, even to the point of repairing century old theoretical inconsistencies that are taken for granted for too long a time, such that we explore not just one new possibility for energy conversion (it is nuclear 'hot' fusion mainly, which is a very poor choice) but at least a thousand new ideas for energy conversion.

    Too many 'free energy amateurs' and well paid 'new energy news' disinformation specialists have poisoned the atmosphere. To cope with this situation the best I can, it is my daily life.

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