Clarifying Oil Information

Clarifying Oil Information

News reports abound with data on oil production, oil imports and oil exports, yet much of the data seems to be contradictory.

For example, the best article yet on why the US isn’t producing more oil was by Paul Tice in The WSJ on March 16, and it said, “Domestic oil production remains stuck below 12 million barrels per day (MMBD).

Yet, there are constant reports that the US was energy independent when Trump was president.

What’s the truth?

This chart shows that the US produced slightly more oil than it used in 2020.

The chart also confirms that, for the first time since 1949, the United States exported more oil than it imported.

Here are the annual totals for 2020 from the above chart,

  • Consumption = 18.1 MMBD
  • Production     = 18.4 MMBD

Also in 2020 the United States exported more natural gas than it imported. 

  • US exports = 5.3 trillion cubic feet (Tcf)
  • US imports = 2.6 Tcf

Therefore, in 2020, the United States was energy independent.

But, how can it also be true that US oil production remains stuck below 12 MMBD?

The problem arises because liquids, most of which are produced in conjunction with the production of natural gas, are also included with crude oil when determining the total amount of oil produced.

 A word of caution about EIA data. 

The EIA publishes both monthly and annual data on oil. The monthly data is at an annual rate in MMBD and varies every month. The annual data smooths out the differing monthly data to arrive at MMBD for the year.

The data used in the next example is December 2021 production data:

  • Crude oil…………… 11.6 MMBD
  • Natural gas liquids…. 5.7 MMBD
  • Totaling……..……  = 17.3 MMBD

Total oil production, however, is actually between 18 and 19 MMBD, which includes additional miscellaneous liquids.

It should now be easy to recognize whether crude oil production or total production is being referenced by the media.

Next, how do oil imports and exports affect these totals?

The United States imported around 6 MMBD of crude oil in 2020, but, as noted earlier, exports exceeded imports.

Imports and exports do not affect the amount of oil produced by the United States.

The reason for importing crude oil is a combination of geographic location and the composition of the crude oil which varies between sources.

Refineries are designed to accommodate specific grades of crude. The specific gravity of oil, translated into API gravity ratings, results in crude being categorized as heavy, medium, light and condensate. 

Heavier oils can be blended with condensates to adjust gravity ratings.

Additionally, some crude oils contain hydrogen sulfide (H2S), and only certain refineries can cope with sour crudes, i.e., containing over 0.5% H2S. 

For example: Refineries located along the Gulf Coast are equipped to handle heavier crudes, and Venezuelan crudes were often used in these refineries prior to sanctions being imposed on Venezuela. Canadian crudes from the oil sands are also used in these refineries.

Getting the right crudes to each refinery requires pipelines, as well as rail, for transporting the various crudes.


The United States was briefly energy independent in 2020, producing more oil than it consumed while also exporting natural gas.

Reports by the media need to distinguish between crude oil production and total oil production which includes liquids. 

Imported oil is primarily used to ensure the proper grades of oil are used in each refinery while considering the total cost of crude, including transportation.

The United States is currently exporting more oil than it imports.

This link to EIA data can be used to explore the issue in greater depth 


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4 Replies to “Clarifying Oil Information”

  1. “Therefore, in 2020, the United States was energy independent.”

    That is not true for the United States and has never been true..
    It will not be true no matter how many times you say it.

    Having net exports of oil exceeding net imports (the US has exports slightly higher than imports) ) does not make a nation petroleum energy independent.

    That is a misinterpretation of the word “independent” as it refers to energy:

    Independent = not depending on another nation for petroleum products

    • If we produce more than we use, it’s fair to say we are independent. Of course, market integration would result in mutual dependencies, but they are to increase economic efficiencies.

  2. Would it be possible to have charts clickable to enlarge? Hard to see on a laptop.