NBC News is reporting that the U.S. intends to ban imports of Russian oil today. That has caused another jump in already surging oil prices, but for many Americans the most surprising thing about this is that America imports Russian oil at all, let alone so much that it accounts for around eight percent of total U.S. oil usage. I mean, haven’t we been told repeatedly over the last five years or so how great it is that the U.S. has become energy independent?
Well, yes, we have. But that statement, while true in some ways, covers up several decades of short-sighted energy policies.
The U.S does indeed produce enough oil to meet its own needs. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2020 America produced 18.4 million barrels of oil per day and consumed 18.12 million. And yet that same report reveals that the U.S. imported 7.86 million barrels of oil per day last year.
That happens because of a combination of economics and chemistry. The economics are simple: overseas oil, even after shipping costs, is often cheaper than domestically-produced crude. That is because what oil people call “lifting costs,” the cost of actually getting the oil out of the ground, are so much lower in some other countries. That, in turn, is down to a number of factors. Environmental and other regulations here play a part in that cost differential of course, but, contrary to what some would have you believe, they are far from the be-all and end-all in affecting prices.
Land and lease prices are a big factor, as are labor and other costs. Then there is the fact that so many countries, and Russia is definitely one of them, that see oil exports as an important strategic and geopolitical tool. In those cases, these nations give concessions to ensure that their oil is sold at an advantageous price. Right now, Vladimir Putin is being accused of weaponizing energy supply, but it is something that he and other dictators and human rights abusers have been doing for years to make client nations, including the U.S., ignore who they are and what they do.
Still, the U.S. probably wouldn’t be one of those client nations at all if it weren’t for the chemistry.
You see, the U.S. does produce enough oil to meet its own needs, but it is the wrong type of oil.
Crude is graded according to two main metrics, weight and sweetness. The weight of oil defines how easy it is to refine, or break down into its usable component parts, such as gasoline, jet fuel and diesel. Light crude is the easiest to handle, heavy is the most difficult, with intermediate obviously somewhere in between. The sweetness refers to the sulfur content of unrefined oil. The sweeter it is, the less sulfur it contains.
Most of the oil produced in the U.S. fields in Texas, Oklahoma, and elsewhere is light and sweet, compared to what comes from the Middle East and Russia. The problem is that for many years, imported oil met most of the U.S.’s energy needs, so a large percentage of the refining capacity here is geared towards dealing with oil that is heavier and less sweet than the kind produced here.
A coordinated, forward-looking energy policy over the last few decades would have targeted that issue through subsidies and incentives. That money has been paid out anyway: it wouldn’t have been hard to use it to make America truly energy independent. However, politicians, it seems, would rather keep a situation where periodic energy crises give them a cudgel with which to beat an incumbent. Lest you think I am making a partisan point here, current criticism is of a Democrat by Republicans, but the last time crude was at these levels it was Democrats criticizing George W. Bush, a Republican, for policies and actions that they said forced oil higher back then.
So, we are left in a place where the U.S., despite producing more crude than it needs, is dependent on imports. When the country feels it must ban imports from Russia because of an unprovoked attack on an ally, it is forced to go cap in hand to countries such as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Iran to make up the difference. That is not the fault of Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or any other individual politician. It is the fault of all of them and of every Congressperson and oil executive who prioritized a partisan lever over reducing America’s dependence on imported oil over the last thirty or forty years.
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