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U.S.’s top export? Surprise, it’s fuel

Believe it or not, the United States very likely did something in 2011 that it hadn’t done in six decades.

It was a net exporter of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. In fact, late in December fuel was on pace to be the nation’s No. 1 export, taking that mantle away from aircraft, which had been America’s top export for the previous five years.

Fuel exports rang up an estimated total of $88 billion in 2011 with experts saying the surge to No. 1 from outside the nation’s top 25 a decade ago was fueled by two things: $95 a barrel average oil prices and $3.52 a gallon average gas prices, and an increasing volume of fuel exports because of better mileage vehicles in the U.S. and a weak economy, which led to a 2.5 percent decline in fuel consumption from 2010.

So, while there has been criticism that the United States should be more self-sufficient with oil, America has tripled its daily exports of these fuels in the past decade, from 40 million gallons a day to last year’s 117 million gallons per day.

The last time this happened was 1949, when America exported 86 million barrels, 4 million more than it imported. Through the end of October 2011, the U.S. had exported 848 million barrels for the year, 98 million barrels more than it imported.

Why’s that? It’s a world market and the highest offer gets the goods. Obviously, refiners wouldn’t be shipping this fuel out of the States if they weren’t getting a better price in the export market than they were in the domestic market.

That’s also one of the reasons that those $3-plus per gallon pump prices are sticking.