US will be a net energy exporter by 2022, four years sooner than expected, Energy Department says

Key Points
  • The United States is on pace to be a net energy exporter by 2022, the Energy Department forecasts.
  • Surging natural gas exports, higher crude shipments and robust fuel flows will help the United States achieve the status for the first time since 1953.
  • Tepid demand growth for energy in the United States will also help the nation become a net exporter.
The Eagle Ford crude oil tanker sails out of the the NuStar Energy dock at the Port of Corpus Christi in Corpus Christi, Texas, U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016.
Eddie Seal | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The United States is on pace to export more energy products than it imports by 2022 as oil and natural gas production from the nation's shale fields keep booming and domestic energy demand remains fairly tepid, according the Department of Energy's statistics arm.

The country will achieve the feat as it expands natural gas exports beyond its traditional North American markets, shipments of crude oil increase and outward flows of refined products such as gasoline remain robust, the Energy Information Administration said in its Annual Energy Outlook.

The nation's anemic appetite for energy will also play a role in the United States becoming a net exporter. U.S. energy consumption is forecast to grow by only 0.4 percent through 2050, compared with expectations for economic growth of 2 percent.

If the forecast bears out, 2022 will mark the first year the U.S. energy exports surpassed imports since 1953.

"The United States energy system continues to undergo an incredible transformation," EIA Administrator Linda Capuano said in a statement. "This is most obvious when one considers that the [Annual Energy Outlook] shows the United States becoming a net exporter of energy during the projection period in the Reference case and in most of the sensitivity cases as well — a very different set of expectations than we imagined even five or ten years ago."

In fact, just last year, the EIA forecast the United States would not achieve net exporter status until 2026.

As a net exporter, the United States would still import oil, natural gas and other energy products. Many U.S. refineries are configured to process heavier grades of crude oil, and international flows fluctuate based on the relative cost of energy products from different parts of the world.

Last year, U.S. crude started trading at a big discount to international benchmark after Hurricane Harvey shut down a quarter of American refining capacity, shrinking demand for crude oil. That discount makes U.S. crude more attractive to overseas refiners and helped push American exports to an all-time high above 2 million barrels a day last fall.

U.S. exports have been fueled by a boom in natural gas and oil production from advanced technology like hydraulic fracturing — the process of pumping water, sand and chemicals underground to fracture shale rocks and allow hydrocarbons to flow.

EIA projects U.S. crude and liquids output will keep growing through 2042, while natural gas production will remain on an upward trajectory through 2050.

Shipments of natural gas cooled to liquid form, known as LNG, are expected to dominate the U.S. export flows. Historically, gas piped to Canada and Mexico has accounted for the bulk of exports.

The EIA expects the United States to remain a net exporter of coal through 2050. However, it warns that shipments won't increase much because competing exporters are closer to the major markets for coal.

Within the United States, coal-fired power generation and coal production is projected to keep falling through 2022 as plants continue to retire, under pressure from natural gas-fired generation. EIA says virtually all new U.S. power generation will come from natural gas-fired plants and renewable sources such as wind and solar farms after 2022.

President Donald Trump has vowed to revive the U.S. coal industry, but he has not made much progress.