The United States became a net oil exporter in 2020 — marking the first time in the 70 years the government has tracked the trade in petroleum that America shipped more oil abroad than it imported. This sea change, highlighted this week by the Department of Energy, marks America’s emergence as a petroleum superpower at just the moment when new leadership in the White House is attempting to convince the world to transition away from fossil fuels to curb runaway global warming.
For decades, America’s car-centric culture was powered by foreign oil, including imports from the volatile Middle East, as well as countries like Mexico, Canada, and Venezuela. Accordingly our foreign policy — including two wars with Iraq and an unwavering devotion to Saudi Arabia — was driven by the imperative to secure the steady crude flow of crude. In 2005, American net oil imports peaked at 12.5 million barrels a day.
But with the advent of fracking, unlocking massive domestic petroleum reserves in shale deposits in places like West Texas and North Dakota, America’s net imports of oil have been in sharp decline. As a matter of national security, U.S. crude oil exports had been blocked since the oil shocks of 1970s. But that changed in 2015 when a Republican-led congress passed, and President Barrack Obama signed, an omnibus spending bill with a provision that let oil giants — much to their collective delight — begin shipping American oil abroad again. At the time, the U.S. was still importing, on net, more than 4 million barrels a day. But by last year, exports slightly overtook imports, by about 650,000 barrels a day. (See the data here.)
The Biden White House has put tackling climate change near the top of its priorities, rejoining the Paris climate accord, hosting a Climate Summit in April and staking out 50 percent emissions reduction for the United States by 2030, measured against a 2005 baseline. The administration is championing the introduction of electric vehicles like the new Ford F-150, and just suspended drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But Biden’s team is also defending a Trump-era decision to greenlight a massive oil and gas project elsewhere in Alaska.
And even as the president and his team seek to reestablish American climate leadership, the surge in U.S. oil exports underscores how challenging fighting global warming in a globalized economy will be. If American consumers finally begin to tame our fossil fuel gluttony, only to have American companies flooding the global market with cheap, fracked-in-the-USA crude — delaying a transition from fossil fuels abroad — is that truly progress?
The pandemic year of 2020 had a small environmental upshot — a nearly 2 billion ton decline in global warming emissions, the equivalent of the European Union’s usual annual output. But even that short-lived dip was not sufficient to slow the rise in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, which hit a new record of 419 parts per million, according to the Washington Post. “It’s not significant in the sense that we are surprised,” Pieter Tans, a senior government climate scientist, told the newspaper. “It’s significant in that it shows we are still fully on the wrong track.”