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The U.S. has long imported oil products from other countries, and continues to do so today — but there are multiple ways to calculate “energy independence”
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said he was citing exports of crude oil and petroleum products exceeding imports of crude oil and petroleum products.
By that measure, a narrow one, the U.S. reached that threshold under former President Donald Trump.
But Johnson is wrong to say we have fallen back under President Joe Biden.
High gasoline prices have been top of mind for many voters across the country, with Republicans zeroing in on the issue and largely blaming Democrats and President Joe Biden.
In Wisconsin's second and final U.S. Senate debate, Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson proposed a solution to the prices at the pump and 40-year high inflation:
"You have to grow our economy but stop the deficit spending and become energy independent," he said. "Stop the war on fossil fuel."
The call for energy independence has been made by Republicans and Democrats alike. But Johnson has been vocal about that push while dismissing the Biden Administration’s investment in clean energy.
That reminded us of a claim we have been meaning to get to — one from a July 14 blog post about gas prices on Johnson’s website: "We finally achieved that energy independence, just like we largely gained control of our border, under the Trump administration. President Biden squandered away both achievements."
We’ll focus here on the claim about energy independence.
Did the U.S. achieve energy independence under Donald Trump and lose that status under Biden?
The metrics of energy independence
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated oil supply across the globe. Recently, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, led by Russia and Saudi Arabia, slashed oil production in a move expected to send gas prices higher.
To consider Johnson’s claim, let’s start by defining what energy independence means. There are actually multiple ways to view it.
First, many voters may take energy independence to mean the United States does not import any oil. But that hasn’t been true for at least seven decades. It could also mean the U.S. doesn’t import any energy, which is also not the case.
A more common metric for energy independence is whether a country is exporting more total energy than it imports.
In Johnson’s case, the senator was referring to something more narrow — not total energy, but exports of crude oil and petroleum products exceeding imports of crude oil and petroleum products.
When we asked for backup, his office pointed to U.S. Energy Information Administration data that show the U.S. did indeed become a net exporter of oil and petroleum products at the end of 2019 under then-President Donald Trump.
But the data also shows the U.S. has maintained that net export status — the metric Johnson used to consider energy independence — during the Biden administration in 2021, though it is significantly lower than it was in 2020.
(During both 2020 and 2021, the U.S. fluctuated between importing more crude oil and petroleum products and exporting more crude oil and petroleum products but ended both years with a net export.)
In the first seven months of 2022, according to the most recent Energy Information Administration data, the country has continued that exporting trend.
So, the U.S. has not "squandered" that position under Biden.
Johnson’s office did reference an Energy Information Administration from February 2022 that noted the country would shift back to net import status by the end of the year. But the most recent data indicate that has not happened so far.
Gregory Nemet, a professor at the University of Wisconsin’s La Follette School of Public Affairs who researches energy and public policy, noted the figures Johnson referenced include both crude oil and refined products such as gasoline and does not include other energy sources.
Lumping those two things together to determine energy independence, he said, doesn’t make much sense because refined products are converted from crude oil.
"It’s simply double counting," Nemet said. "For example, if we import oil from Canada and refine that into gasoline and sell the gasoline to Mexico, this number would say we are at net zero imports. That’s not what people care about when wanting independence."
If you consider just crude oil, Nemet pointed out, the U.S. has been a net importer for decades. In 2020, for example, the country imported a net 2.67 million barrels of crude oil per day. In 2021, that number was a net 3.13 million barrels per day.
Finally, if we consider the total energy metric — including sources like electricity, oil, coal and natural gas — the U.S. has been an annual net total energy exporter since 2019.
Johnson claimed "We finally achieved that energy independence … under the Trump administration. President Biden squandered (it) away."
By some measures, this is wrong — the U.S. has relied on imported oil products for decades and continues to do so. By choosing a more narrow metric, Johnson cites an accurate number: Late in the Trump administration, the U.S. began exporting more crude oil and petroleum products than it imports.
But Johnson is also wrong to say the situation has been reversed under Biden.
Our definition of Mostly False is: "The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression."
That fits here.
Interview with Gregory Nemet, professor at the La Follette School of Public Affairs, University of Wisconsin, Oct. 23, 2022.
Email with Alec Zimmerman, spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson campaign, Oct. 24, 2022.
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson. Get the Facts: Gas Prices, July 14, 2022.
U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. energy facts explained. June 10, 2022.
U.S. Energy Information Administration, Petroleum & Other Liquids. Sept. 30, 2022.
U.S. Energy Information Administration, EIA expects U.S. petroleum trade to shift toward net imports during 2022. Feb. 18, 2022.
U.S. Energy Information Administration, Oil and petroleum products explained. April 21, 2022.
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