Is the U.S.Really a Net Petroleum Exporter? No

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The Wall Street Journal has an accurate but easy to misconstrue story about the United States' energy picture. "U.S. Nears Milestone: Net Fuel Exporter," the headline reads. The article describes how the US, in a big change from recent decades, may actually export more petroleum products than it imports in 2011. Sounds important, right? And it is. BUT, there is a very big difference between being a net petroleum product exporter and being a net petroleum exporter. We're still importing 8 million barrels of crude oil per day!

What the numbers mean is that we have more refining capacity than we need to supply our domestic needs. So, we import the crude oil, refine it, use almost all of it, and sell a percentage of it to the rest of the world. The biggest surpluses are in "unfinished oils" and "motor gasoline blending components." Mexico's rising petroleum product use is a big part of the story, as you can see in the by-country net import numbers.

So, the Journal's story is good news, in a general sense, but let's not make it bigger than it is. We're still buying massive amounts of crude oil from other countries. Take a look at Atlantic alum Matt Yglesias' post for a quick economic analysis.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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