U.S. A Net Gas Exporter For First Time In Decades

The U.S. has become a net exporter of gasoline for the first time in fifty years. Thanks to rising production at refineries and declining demand, the United States exported more gasoline than it imported in December. The unusual development reflects the segmented U.S. energy market — the East Coast needs to import gas while the Midwest produces a surplus.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The price of gasoline edged up again today for the 27th day in a row. But here's an interesting twist: Prices are up even though the U.S. is now producing more gas than it needs. In December, for the first time in more than 50 years, the U.S. became a gasoline exporter.

NPR's Tom Gjelten explains.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: It's been believed for months that the United States is turning into an exporter of finished petroleum products generally. But the official data on gasoline in particular for December brought big news: the United States that month produced 90,000 barrels of gas more than it consumed. Not much but enough to impress Rob Smith, a senior analyst at PFC Energy.

ROB SMITH: Compared to what the U.S. was just two years ago, that's a huge sea change.

GJELTEN: Two years ago, the United States needed an extra 30 million barrels each month to meet demand.

Now, here's an important point: The United States is both an exporter and an importer of gasoline at the same time. It's like we're two different countries. A lot of the oil produced in the U.S. gets refined into gasoline in Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi. It then goes into pipelines for distribution to East Coast states and other areas where gas is consumed.

But those pipelines, Rob Smith says there are too few of them and they're not big enough.

SMITH: These pipelines are essentially filled to the brim, so to speak, and yet the East Coast markets still don't have enough gasoline. So they're forced to import.

GJELTEN: The East Coast imports gasoline even though there's more than enough gasoline available down south. So the gasoline down there gets exported, mostly to Latin America. And now the U.S. is officially exporting more gas than its importing.

In part it's because the U.S. is producing more gasoline; more importantly, we're consuming less; ethanol is displacing some gasoline; we have more efficient cars. Plus, we are driving less, for reasons ranging from the economic downturn to the aging of the U.S. population.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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