U.S. Becomes Net Exporter Of Fuel For First Time In Nearly 20 Years

U.S. Becomes Net Exporter Of Fuel For First Time In Nearly 20 Years

This piece has been updated.

While some Americans cut back on driving as gas prices soar, the U.S. has become a net exporter of fuel for the first time in nearly 20 years.

According to data from the Energy Department, starting last November -- with the exception of the month of January -- the U.S. began exporting more petroleum products than it imported.

In February, the U.S. exported 54,000 more barrels of petroleum products each day than it purchased abroad, with diesel and finished petrol leading the increase. According to the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, U.S. refined product exports rose in the first quarter of 2011 to 2.49 million barrels per day, a 24.4 percent year-over-year increase, the Financial Times reports.

In the first quarter of 2011, imports dropped to 2.26 million barrels a day, a 14.4 percent year-over-year decline, according to the FT.

Analysts attribute the increase in exports to a combination of overlapping factors: unrest in the Middle East leading to higher oil prices, a weak U.S. dollar and increased spending power abroad, particularly in Latin America.

"The U.S. is exporting quite a bit now to Latin American because the market's quite lucrative there and the reality is that they can get a better price by exporting it," said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist of IHS. "It's a free market, and if refiners can get higher prices in other parts of the world, they'll sell it. It's just the reality. It's the free market at work."

The chart below tracks the rise and fall of monthly U.S. net imports of total petroleum products since 1993.

The data paints a grim picture of the role of the weakening U.S. dollar in the world.

"It's a sign that the dollar has gotten weak enough that it's actually starting to stimulate demand for the goods we produce here," said Scott Anderson, Senior Economist at Wells Fargo. "We're more of a price taker right now in the gasoline market than a price setter and that means we're at the whims of global growth and global demand."

Last week, President Obama criticized oil companies for profiting from rising pump prices and pushed congress to end $4 billion in annual tax breaks for the oil and gas industry.

The president's plan will not affect gas prices, but he said that the money saved ending the subsides would be invested in developing new energy resources and research.

This piece originally misstated the net quantity of barrels of petroleum product exported each year.

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