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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama, McConnell Take Oil Import Data for Spin

President Barack Obama and Sen. Mitch McConnell used the same data to score apparently conflicting points about U.S. dependency on foreign oil. Obama said oil imports account for less than half of consumption, while McConnell said 60 percent of our oil comes from abroad.

Both can claim to be correct, depending on how you interpret the data. But Obama was using the figure preferred by energy experts.

With gas prices rising, the United States’ dependence on imported oil is once again in the spotlight and has been the source of debate between the two parties in Washington. During his March 11 press conference, Obama touted an increase in domestic oil production last year, saying it has reduced our reliance on foreign oil.

Obama, March 11: Our oil production reached its highest level in seven years. Oil production from federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico reached an all-time high. For the first time in more than a decade, imports accounted for less than half of what we consumed.

Two days later on "Fox News Sunday," McConnell responded to the president's claim. He agreed that domestic production is up (crediting the Bush administration) and then gave a different — naturally, higher — figure for oil imports.

McConnell, March 13: Sixty percent of our oil is coming from overseas. That's unacceptable.

Is it 60 percent or less than half? Who's right? It's a matter of interpretation.

The Energy Information Administration says that "U.S. dependence on imported oil can be measured in at least two ways:" total petroleum imports or net imports (total imports minus exports). Yes, the U.S. exports oil. The EIA says the U.S. exports "about 2 million barrels a day of oil, almost all of it in the form of refined petroleum products."

McConnell was referring to total imports, which amounted to 61.2 percent in 2010, while Obama was referring to net imports, which came to 49.3 percent. Both figures are revised estimates that can be found in the EIA's February 2011 Monthly Energy Review.

EIA prefers to use net imports when discussing energy dependence and has for many years. In a 1995 report, the EIA explains why:

EIA, August 1995: EIA believes that the net-imports definition gives a clearer indication of the fraction of oil consumed that could not have been supplied from domestic sources and is thus the most appropriate measure.

— Michael Morse