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Refiners' need for heavy, sour crude keeps US a net energy importer

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Refiners' need for heavy, sour crude keeps US a net energy importer

While growing U.S. shale oil and gas exports are helping to narrow the energy product trade gap, sustained crude oil imports that domestic refiners can handle still keep the country a net importer, according to federal government data.

The U.S. imported about 10 times as much energy as it exported in dollar terms from 2003 to 2007, but by 2017, the ratio was down to about 1.5 times, the Energy Information Administration said in an Oct. 16 "Today in Energy" article.

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The U.S. resumed shipping significant quantities of oil products abroad in 2016 after skyrocketing production helped prompt Congress to overturn a decadeslong ban on crude exports. The first U.S. LNG export cargo followed a month later when Cheniere Energy Inc.'s Sabine Pass facility came online. The U.S. exported approximately 1 billion barrels of crude from January 2016 through July 2018 and 1.5 trillion cubic feet of LNG from February 2016 through July 2018.

The U.S. remains a net energy importer, however, because U.S. refineries are not set up to accommodate what is being produced in prolific areas such as the Permian Basin and the Marcellus Shale. "Shale oil is light and sweet, and our refiners are geared toward heavies and sours. ... The big growth supply in the United States really has nowhere to go but abroad," Bob McNally, founder and president of consulting company Rapidan Energy Group, said in an interview. "To keep our refineries humming, we have to be importing the crude they like to drink."

The EIA noted that crude oil made up most U.S. energy imports in 2017. Exports of petroleum products, on the other hand, have already tipped the trade balance for that category. "In 2005 we were between 2 [million] and 3 million barrels per day of net imports … and now we're at 3 [million] to 4 million barrels per day of net exports," McNally said.

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The U.S. also became a net exporter of natural gas in 2017 for the first time in six decades.

Even though the U.S. remains a net energy importer, its energy export trade is more diversified. The biggest seven buyers of U.S. energy products received 57% of those exports in 2017, according to the EIA, while the top seven sellers of energy products to the U.S. accounted for 72% of shipments received.