Donald Trump says the US is an energy exporter, and he’s wrong

Donald Trump speaks at an oil refinery in September 2017.
Donald Trump speaks at an oil refinery in September 2017.
Image: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
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“We have ended the war on American energy and we have ended the war on beautiful clean coal,” US president Donald Trump said in his State of the Union address tonight. “We are now, very proudly, an exporter of energy to the world.”

Not so fast: While the US sells energy abroad, in the form of petroleum, natural gas, coal and electricity, the country is still buying more foreign energy than it sells abroad, according to the most recent government statistics. The US is moving toward becoming a net exporter of energy products—but only because of a decision made by the Obama administration.

The US still imports a lot of energy

This is a chart of how much energy the US had to import last year, measured in quadrillions of BTU—a “quad” being equal to the energy produced by 170 million barrels of crude oil, or a pile of coal ten feet thick, three miles long and one mile wide. The US imported about six quads of energy during Trump’s first nine months in office, through October 2017.

The US is exporting more thanks to pre-Trump policies

Imports are trending down, and have been since the end of the Bush administration. The biggest factor is a 2015 decision by Congress to end a ban on exporting crude oil that had been in place since the 1970s. In July, the US exported more than one million barrels of crude oil for the first time, and the government estimates the US is likely a net exporter by 2026 or sooner, but thanks to oil and natural gas recovered by fracking, not coal.

Though Trump is taking credit for the results, the end of the export ban was signed off on by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Ironically, one of the reasons the Obama administration backed the decision was to put pressure on Trump’s friend, Russian leader Vladimir Putin, whose economy depends on oil exports.