America's foreign oil dependence wanes but independence proves elusive

Juliette MICHEL
A pumpjack stands out among homes in residential Signal Hill, south of Los Angeles, California (AFP Photo/Frederic J. BROWN)

New York (AFP) - US President Donald Trump on Wednesday touted America's newfound "energy independence" which means the country is no longer at the mercy of geopolitical upheaval in the region.

"We are independent and we do not need Middle East oil," Trump said as he reacted to Iran's retaliation against US troops following Washington's killing of an Iranian general.

But while the United States has seen a production boom with exploitation of shale deposits, it still relies on imported oil.

- Is the United States energy independent? -

The answer: It depends on what you mean by how "energy independence," said Matt Smith, an oil market specialist for ClipperData.

It is true that in the final months of 2019, "the US gradually moved into being a net exporter of crude and products," he said, meaning the country exports more than it imports.

That has been thanks to the massive exploitation of shale gas. The United States became a net exporter of natural gas in 2017 for the first time in 60 years.

"But the US is still importing 7 million barrels per day of crude and more than a million barrels of refined products," Smith said.

It is still "hugely relying on Canada and other countries, including countries in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait."

- A real evolution -

Even if the United States is not yet strictly speaking energy independent, the situation has changed considerably.

Since the oil shock of 1973, Washington has aimed to reduce its dependence on imported oil and in 1975 prohibited exports of American crude.

New hydraulic fracturing techniques -- known as fracking -- and horizontal drilling have allowed producers to exploit new deposits and have allowed progress towards this goal. Wells have multiplied in Texas, New Mexico, North Dakota and Pennsylvania.

The country now extracts an average of 12 to 13 million barrels per day, producing more than Russia or Saudi Arabia, compared to 5.3 mbd in 2009 for example.

That delights Trump, who in 2017 promised not only to achieve energy independence but to lead a drive toward American domination of energy.

- Persistent obstacles -

But the United States continues to import massive quantities of crude oil from abroad because many of its refineries are configured to process heavy oil, mainly from Canada and Mexico, while shale oil is considered light.

And while production of refined products such as gasoline, heating oil and kerosene have drastically increased, Americans' total energy consumption also is increasing.

According to the US Energy Information Agency, consumption in 2018 increased by 4 percent to a new record.

In petroleum alone, "total product demand in the US is around 20 million barrels per day, while oil production is 13 million barrels per day," Smith said.