January 24, 2019
U.S. Oil Imports, Exports, and Energy Security
In December 2015, P.L. 114-113 lifted restrictions on U.S.
exports of crude oil, allowing U.S. exporters full access to
world oil markets. The restrictions had been in effect for 40
years. Lifting the export restrictions addressed the changing
nature of U.S. oil supply which is characterized by growing
output of light oil. Due to the rapidity with which these oil
supplies have entered the market, producers initially
encountered infrastructure bottlenecks in transporting the
new oil supplies to buyers, as well as noting a fundamental
mismatch between the characteristics of the new oil
supplies and the desired crude oil inputs of U.S. refineries.
Many producers of the new oil supplies found that they
could only sell their oil at a discount to both West Texas
Intermediate (WTI) and other world reference prices of
crude oil (e.g., Brent and Dubai). As a result, low realized
prices threatened the potential growth of the U.S. oil
industry. Producers saw entry into the world oil market as a
way to increase demand for their oil and to close the price
While opponents of the oil export restrictions pointed to
enhanced domestic oil supply and job growth, proponents
of the ban claimed that its repeal could lead to higher
domestic gasoline prices as well as lower capacity
utilization rates and fewer jobs in the refining industry.
Also of concern were issues of energy security. Some
define energy (oil) security in terms of oil independence.
From this point of view, domestic oil supplies replacing
imports signified reduced dependence on the world oil
market, and hence, greater oil security. Exporting U.S. oil
would in their argument leave the United States dependent
on imports and the world oil market. Regardless, the United
States would remain connected to the world oil market
through crude oil imports and petroleum product
Evaluating Crude Oil Imports and
Three years have passed since the lifting of the crude oil
restrictions, and an evaluation of the effects, both in terms
of trade and energy security, can be undertaken.
Crude oil exports have risen. From 2008 to 2012 the United
States exported on average about 45 thousand barrels of
crude oil per day (mb/d). In the next three years, 2013 to
2015, a time characterized by growing U.S. shale oil
production, but with the export restrictions still in effect,
exports averaged about 316 mb/d (mostly to Canada which
was not subject to the restrictions), a six-fold increase. In
the three years since the lifting of the restrictions, crude oil
exports have averaged over 1.2 million barrels per day
(mmb/d), a four-fold increase. Exports have increased each
year since the restrictions were lifted, rising from 591 mb/d
in 2016 to 1.1 mmb/d in 2017 and 1.9 mmb/d in 2018.
Why is domestic oil exported instead of being used
domestically? Exports are likely taking place for three
reasons. First, the type of oil that has come into the U.S.
supply picture in the past five years is light, sweet (low
sulfur) oil. Many U.S. refineries are not optimized to use
this type of oil. As a result, U.S. oil is shipped overseas
while oil of a type appropriate to U.S. refinery demand is
imported. This type of trade transaction increases U.S.
integration with the world oil market, and it maximizes the
value of the output of the oil refining industry. Second,
logistical cost issues may determine the sourcing of crude
oil. Given the location of a refinery, it may be cheaper to
procure oil overseas than to purchase and ship domestic oil
given transportation constraints. Third, some large U.S.
refineries are owned by foreign national oil companies and
they may choose to use their own nation’s oil, imported into
the United States in their operations. For example,
Venezuela owns Citgo Petroleum Corporation and Saudi
Arabia owns Motiva Enterprises Company, both with
refineries in the Gulf Coast region.
Crude oil imports have fallen. From 2008 to 2012 the
United States imported on average about 9 mmb/d. In the
next three years, 2013 to 2015, imports averaged about 7.4
mmb/d, a decrease of about 18%. In the three years since
the lifting of the restrictions, crude oil imports have
averaged about 7.9 mmb/d, an increase over the previous
three years, but still less than the 2008 to 2012 period. The
data suggest that while imports of crude oil declined with
the lifting of the export restrictions, they then began to
increase, providing some evidence to suggest U.S.
dependence on world markets might be increasing.
Over the same period, product supplied to the U.S. market
(the Energy Information Administration measure of
consumption) increased from 19.6 mmb/d in 2016 to 19.9
mmb/d in 2017 and, based on available 10-month data for
2018, is set to total about 20.3 mmb/d. A possible
interpretation of these data might conclude that the
approximately 700 mb/d increase in U.S. product supplied
from 2016 to 2018 resulted largely from the 500 mb/d
increase in imported crude oil, again raising the question as
to whether growth in the U.S. market is tied to import
This picture is altered when net imports are considered. Net
imports are defined as gross imports minus exports. This
measure brings into sharper focus a nation’s dependence on
the global market for commodities it both imports and
Crude oil net imports have fallen. From 2008 to 2012, U.S.
imports of crude oil averaged about 9 mmb/d. In the next
three years, 2013 to 2015, net imports averaged 7.1 mmb/d,
U.S. Oil Imports, Exports, and Energy Security
a decline of 21%. In the three years since the lifting of the
export restrictions crude oil net imports have averaged 6.7
mmb/d, a decline of about 6%. In addition, quantity of net
imports of crude oil per year has shown a downward trend;
that is, it has declined every year since 2015 on a year-onyear basis.
As a result of rising U.S. crude oil production, coupled with
rising exports of crude oil, the nation’s net dependence on
foreign oil supplies has declined, and given the trend in net
imports, is likely to continue to fall. This implies that a
portion, about 1.2 mmb/d of U.S. import dependence, might
be considered an adjustment of U.S. crude oil production to
reflect differences in quality desired in oil supply, or
locational and cost differentials.
Petroleum Product Imports/Exports
To fully evaluate the effects of the full integration of the
United States into the world oil market, petroleum products
also must be considered. Crude oil has no major direct
consumption use in itself. Oil must be processed at a
refinery to yield a wide range of petroleum products
including transportation fuels such as gasoline, diesel fuel,
and aviation fuel. In addition, home heating oil, propane,
and a wide variety of other products used by various
industries are included in the output of the refining industry.
Petroleum product exports have risen. From 2008 to 2012,
the United States exported on average about 2.2 mmb/d of
petroleum products. In the next three years, 2013 to 2015,
as shale oil production was increasing, but without the
lifting of export restrictions on crude oil, the United States
exported about 3.8 mmb/d of petroleum products, an
increase of about 72%. For the period 2016 through the first
10 months of 2018 the United States exported about 5.1
mmb/d of petroleum products, a 34% increase.
U.S. petroleum product exports to various countries/
regions have increased. In Latin America, Peru, Brazil, and
Guatemala have seen imports from the United States
increase over the period 2015 to 2017 by 37%, 106%, and
80%, respectively. These and other nations now depend on
U.S. supply, supporting the strength of the U.S. refining
industry. Among close U.S. allies, Japan and South Korea
have rapidly increased imports of U.S. petroleum products
by 95% and 93% over the 2015 to 2017 period. Trade in
petroleum products creates important trading relationships
between nations where both partners to trade might be
expected to gain.
The net liquids import/export position of the United States,
considering crude oil and petroleum products, has
improved. From 2008 to 2012, U.S net imports averaged
about 9.2 mmb/d. In the next three years, 2013 to 2015, the
U.S. net imports were 5.3 mmb/d, a reduction of about
42%. For the period 2016 through the first ten months of
2018 U.S. net imports were about 2.7 mmb/d, a further
decrease of 49%. In addition, U.S. crude oil production is
widely expected to increase, while petroleum product
consumption growth in the United States is expected to be
modest. A combination of growing production and
modestly increasing domestic consumption could lead to
further improvements in the net import position, as U.S.
petroleum product exports expand.
While the lifting of crude oil export restrictions and
favorable U.S. oil production trends have not yielded total
oil independence and security, important progress has been
U.S. crude oil imports have most recently averaged 7.9
mmb/d. Petroleum product exports have averaged 5.1
mmb/d, yielding a net draw on world oil markets by the
United States of about 2.8 mmb/d. In a sense, about 5
mmb/d of U.S. crude oil imports exist specifically to supply
nations around the world with petroleum products, rather
than the domestic market. Petroleum products generally
have a higher value per barrel than crude oil, value captured
by U.S. refiners and exporters, enhancing the financial
health of exporting firms. Overseas markets have allowed
refiners to operate closer to peak capacity and maintain
high levels of output and employment.
As the United States expands oil exports, this provides
nations around the world an alternative to importing from
the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries
(OPEC) or Russia among others. Reduced direct
dependence and increased diversification reduces OPEC’s
and other nations’ ability to control prices and use oil as a
tool to achieve their political objectives. Oil prices can
become more market determined and less tied to specific
interests. Some analysts have seen the United States
becoming a “swing producer” for the world market, and
itself exerting influence on world oil prices.
Crude oil and petroleum product imports from the United
States are highly successful among U.S. allies, especially in
the important Asian markets. This success creates an
important economic bond along with political and military
ties. U.S. crude exports, which offer a combination of
attractive crude grades, private market financing and lowrisk contract fulfillment are well positioned to expand in
Asia and displace OPEC supplies. In addition, the ability of
private oil firms to adapt to changing conditions more
effectively than state oil companies and generally remain
immune to political pressure has also proven to be attractive
to international buyers.
It is unlikely that the United States can gain full
independence, or isolation from, the world oil market. The
price of oil is an international price reflecting the demand
and supply conditions in a large world market. Changes in
demand and/or production in any nation creates a new set of
incentives for all oil consumers and producers. A set of
mutual dependencies—where many nations are linked by
trade, and no set of oil suppliers can easily enforce its own
will, or dictate trade—is likely to approximate energy
security for nations in the market.
Robert Pirog, Specialist in Energy Economics
U.S. Oil Imports, Exports, and Energy Security
This document was prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). CRS serves as nonpartisan shared staff to
congressional committees and Members of Congress. It operates solely at the behest of and under the direction of Congress.
Information in a CRS Report should not be relied upon for purposes other than public understanding of information that has
been provided by CRS to Members of Congress in connection with CRS’s institutional role. CRS Reports, as a work of the
United States Government, are not subject to copyright protection in the United States. Any CRS Report may be
reproduced and distributed in its entirety without permission from CRS. However, as a CRS Report may include
copyrighted images or material from a third party, you may need to obtain the permission of the copyright holder if you
wish to copy or otherwise use copyrighted material.
https://crsreports.congress.gov | IF11095 · VERSION 2 · NEW