The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) just announced a historic milestone that received remarkably little attention: In September, the United States exported more petroleum products than it imported.
It was “the first month this has happened since monthly records began in 1973,” the EIA reports, something that would have been unimaginable at that time.
In January of 1974, shortly after the monthly import-export records began, President Richard Nixon proclaimed the need for national energy independence. He proposed a plan to end our dependence on foreign oil by 1980. In 1979, Jimmy Carter lamented that “almost half the oil we use comes from foreign countries.”
“Beginning this moment, this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977 — never. From now on, every new addition to our demand for energy will be met from our own production and our own conservation,” Carter said.
Every president since has proposed new initiatives to reduce our dependence on foreign energy imports. So America exporting more petroleum products than it imported over an entire month should have been a major media story. But, strangely, it has barely registered.
Thanks to the uninterrupted availability of petroleum products — most notably domestic natural gas — energy independence is no longer a front-burner issue for most Americans. The concern has shifted from the volume of energy produced to the method by which it is generated.
Politicians in high-cost New England are less focused on prices and availability than on the percentage of the region’s energy that is generated from renewable sources. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy has joined several U.S. senators in pressuring the region’s electrical grid operator to place more emphasis on renewable energy.
The grid operator, ISO New England, is charged with ensuring an adequate energy supply. ISO New England has pointed out over the years that fossil fuel and nuclear generation provide reliable power during periods of peak demand and extreme weather. That focus on ensuring that the region has enough power to avoid blackouts has fallen out of political fashion.
With the United States producing an abundance of energy, the old concerns about blackouts, shortages and astronomical prices have faded. Taking energy abundance for granted, politicians and activists have shifted to demanding that the energy comes from cleaner sources.
The big energy stories are no longer U.S. production, but demands by activists and politicians to shift completely away from fossil fuels. Since Berkeley, Calif., banned natural gas hookups for new homes and businesses earlier this year, other communities across the country are considering following suit. In Massachusetts, with some of the highest energy costs in the U.S., Brookline, Mass., passed a similar ban, which is inspiring other communities in Massachusetts to do the same.
And in the same month U.S. petroleum exports surpassed imports, Time magazine named teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg their 2019 person of the year. The magazine’s profile noted that she “inspired 4 million people to join the global climate strike on September 20, 2019, in what was the largest climate demonstration in human history.”
The EIA had predicted September’s net petroleum export milestone. This month, it predicted that “the share of U.S. total utility-scale electricity generation from natural gas-fired power plants will rise from 34 percent in 2018 to 37 percent in 2019 and to 39 percent in 2020” while coal’s share will fall from 28 percent in 2018 to 22 percent in 2020. This should be viewed as good news to climate activists given that natural gas emits as much as 55 percent less carbon dioxide than coal. Instead, they’ve declared a rhetorical war on natural gas, noting with alarm that “natural gas surpasses coal in carbon emissions.”
Since 1990, the percentage of America’s electricity generated by coal has fallen from above 50 percent to around 30 percent today, while natural gas energy generation has surpassed coal and is growing. So the net emissions from natural gas are going to be higher. But once again, the major headline is missing: With the rise of natural gas, U.S. carbon emissions have fallen significantly since 2005.
That progress goes largely unacknowledged in the new debate over fuel sources, even though the abundant supply of cleaner-burning natural gas has allowed us to shift our attention from energy security to energy activism.