In the past decade, US domestic energy production has increased faster than any other time in history. This rapid growth has prompted government officials, including former President Donald Trump, to claim that the US is now energy independent.
But while it’s true the US now exports more energy than it imports, the nation still relies on foreign oil to some degree for the energy it needs.
The need for foreign oil is largely due to a need for heavy crude oil by the refining industry, which is harder to come by in the US.
This need for foreign energy is not new. Since 2007, every president has signed legislation to reduce energy imports and increase domestic production of oil and natural gas. And energy independence is still a stated goal of government officials across the political spectrum.
What is energy independence?
The term energy independence is an ambiguous concept without a clear economic or technical definition. While the exact meaning of the term is contested, energy independence generally refers to a country’s ability to rely solely on domestically produced energy.
One way to measure whether the US has reached that point is by seeing whether the US exports more energy products than it imports. By this metric, the US achieved energy independence in 2019.
A more detailed definition of energy independence would include phasing out all imports of foreign energy resources, such as oil and natural gas, and instead relying on domestic production to fuel the economy. By this metric, the US has not achieved energy independence, as it still relies on imports of crude oil to fuel the economy.
Independence has been a component of energy policy for every administration since President George W. Bush. He signed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which laid out a plan to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil and stabilize domestic consumption.
Subsequent policy initiatives, such as the lifted ban on oil exports in 2015 under President Barack Obama, and Executive Order 13783 easing the process of leasing federal lands to oil and natural gas companies under President Trump demonstrate a continued interest in achieving some form of energy independence.
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How much has US energy production increased in recent years?
Since 2019, the US has produced more energy than it has consumed on an annual basis. This is the first time the US achieved an energy surplus since 1957, thanks primarily to the recent boom in domestic energy production over the last decade.
In 2021, the US produced a total of 97.95 quadrillion British thermal units (Btus) of energy, the majority of which came from natural gas (36%) and petroleum (31%). This exceeded the total US energy consumption of 97.33 quadrillion Btus in the same year. More than two thirds of energy consumed in the US comes from petroleum (36%) and natural gas (32%) combined.
The growth in energy production is largely due to hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Increases in production from these techniques allowed the US to increase domestic energy production faster than at any time in its history. This is due to the fact that hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling facilitate access to black shale rock, which contains organic materials for oil and natural gas.
In addition to the production growth from hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, the Trump administration made a priority to increase domestic energy production.
All these factors contributed to the US becoming the largest natural gas producer and crude oil producer in the world. As of 2021, the US still holds both positions.
How have US energy exports changed?
In 2019, total US energy exports overtook total energy imports for the first time since 1952. This occurred the same year that US energy production totaled more than energy consumption.
Energy exports had been steadily growing since 2007 as domestic energy production expanded.
In 2015, President Obama, as part of a budget omnibus bill, repealed a statutory crude oil export ban that was in place since 1975. According to the Government Accountability Office, this repeal resulted in a rise of crude oil exports from half a million barrels per day in 2015 to more than 3 million barrels per day in 2020.
Of the 25 quadrillion Btus of energy the US exported in 2021, about 64% were from petroleum products and about 27% were from natural gas. The remaining 10% or so of exports came from coal, biomass, and other sources.
Why does the US continue to import crude oil?
Due to the rise in both energy production and exports, US energy imports have dropped by more than a third since their peak in 2007.
Net imports of crude oil decreased from 22 quadrillion Btus in 2006 to 7.3 quadrillion Btus in 2021.
The US still imports crude oil because refiners want access to a different kind of oil than what’s produced domestically.
Crude oil is measured by the density of the liquid petroleum extracted from the ground.
And while each type of crude oil can be refined to make products such as gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, and other products, the US primarily produces lighter crude oil.
US refineries have the capacity to process both light and heavy crude oil. Without importing heavy crude oil, US refineries can’t maximize their capacity. Since 2015, roughly two-thirds of all imported crude oil in the US has been heavy crude oil.
The US has also taken steps to reduce its dependence on foreign oil from the Middle East. In 2007, 45% of petroleum imports came from members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. As of 2021, that proportion dropped to 11%. Conversely, petroleum imports from Canada and Mexico have increased from 30% in 2007 to 60% in 2021. Canada is also responsible for 99% of all natural gas imports.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a method used to extract natural gas and oil from deep rock formations known as shale. Horizontal drilling is the process of drilling a well along a horizontal path to gain access to oil and gas reservoirs that cannot be accessed through traditional vertical drilling.