No fueling, U.S. turns fuel exporter

News flash: If trends continue the United States will for the first time in 62 years be a net exporter of petroleum products in 2011. Say what?

The world's most energy gluttonous country, which has become involved in some nasty international conflicts and tolerated relationships with totalitarian regimes because of its dependence on foreign oil, will ship out more fuel than it imports? Apparently so.

Citing data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Wall Street Journal reported this surprising fact in its Wednesday edition. During the first nine months of the year, the U.S. shipped abroad 753.4 million barrels of petroleum products from gasoline to jet fuel, while importing 698.4 million.

Unfortunately, this turnaround may be as much cause for concern as exhilaration. U.S. demand is shrinking, in part due to conservation, but more largely due to sluggish economic growth. In August, for example, American drivers used 7.7 percent less gasoline than four years earlier. Meanwhile, emerging market economies are growing rapidly with a corresponding demand for fuel. Sustaining that demand for fossil fuels long term could prove problematic and be the source of global conflict.

The ability of energy companies to find customers overseas means drivers in the United States cannot expect to see any benefit in discounted prices despite their reduced fuel use. Demand remains high abroad, keeping prices high.

The Obama administration needs to take a closer look at these dramatic changes and factor them into energy policy. Energy independence may not be the pipe dream it long appeared to be.

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