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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Friends Lumped with Foes in Foreign Oil Debate

Republican presidential candidates Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman this week both exaggerated the extent to which the U.S. relies on imported oil from countries “hostile” or “unfriendly” to the U.S.

Warning about over-reliance on foreign oil from countries that “don’t like us very much” is a bipartisan refrain. And it is true that some of the oil imported by the U.S. comes from countries that are arguably (and in some cases undeniably) unfriendly to the U.S. Where Perry and Huntsman went astray was assigning the entire cost of foreign oil imports to hostile nations, when, in fact, the top two suppliers of foreign oil are the United States’ close allies Canada and Mexico.

Here’s what Perry said in a speech at the National Association of Manufacturers Republican Presidential Forum on Nov. 1.

Perry, Nov. 1: We send over $300 billion a year to countries that do not have our best interest, that are frankly in some cases hostile to who America is. What a great day it would be to just say no thank you Mr. Chavez, we don’t need your oil.

And here’s what Huntsman said in an energy speech in Durham, N.H., the same day:

Huntsman, Nov. 1: Every year, we send $300 billion – half our trade deficit – overseas for oil to unstable and unfriendly regimes.

Sound familiar? We’ve heard this exaggeration before. In a speech accepting the Republican nomination for president in 2008, Sen. John McCain said: “We are going to stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don’t like us very much.” When we wrote about it then, we found that the U.S. imported about $536 billion worth of oil —  from all nations, not just those that “don’t like us very much.” For example, we noted, about 32 percent of U.S. oil imports came from Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom.

Oil prices have gone down since then, as have imports of foreign oil. In 2010, the U.S. imported 4.3 billion barrels of oil, according to the Energy Information Administration. At 2010 prices, that comes to about $342 billion. So Perry’s and Huntsman’s use of the $300 billion figure was on target. But again, not all of that came from countries hostile to the U.S.

According to the EIA, 14.5 percent of U.S. oil imports come from Persian Gulf countries. About 42 percent of that is imported from OPEC countries. That includes American allies like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. It also includes Venezuela, whose president, Hugo Chavez, has said plenty of disparaging — some would say hostile, unfriendly or hateful — things about the U.S. The U.S. imports about 8.4 percent of its oil from Venezuela, according to the EIA.

But the largest suppliers of oil imports to the U.S. are Canada (21.5 percent) and Mexico (10.9 percent). Not hostile. Not unfriendly.

Peruse the list of countries that export oil to the U.S., and you’ll find very few that could be described as “unfriendly” to the U.S.

In a new TV ad released on Oct. 25, Perry dialed up the dislike factor, saying that his energy plan would “reduce our reliance on oil from countries that hate America.” Actually, the amount of oil the U.S. imports from foreign countries is already on the decline, down about 14 percent since its peak in 2005.

According to EIA, here’s why:

Energy Information Administration: This trend is the result of a variety of factors including a decline in consumption and shifts in supply patterns. The economic downturn after the financial crisis of 2008, improvements in efficiency, changes in consumer behavior and patterns of economic growth, all contributed to the decline in petroleum consumption. At the same time, increased use of domestic biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel), and strong gains in domestic production of crude oil and natural gas plant liquids expanded domestic supplies and reduced the need for imports.

Back in March, we wrote about a similar claim from Sarah Palin, who wrote in a Facebook post that the administration’s inaction on drilling permits is “allowing America to remain increasingly dependent on imports from foreign regimes in dangerously unstable parts of the world.”

We noted then that net imports are trending downward, and that our reliance on imported liquid fuels — as the EIA calls oil and other petroleum products — declined to less than 50 percent of U.S. consumption in 2010. The EIA’s 2011 Annual Energy Outlook, released in December 2010, projects our reliance on imported liquid fuels will drop to 42 percent by 2035.

— Robert Farley