Faced with sluggish sales at home, American refineries are shipping gasoline, diesel and other petroleum products abroad in record amounts, turning the country into a net exporter of fuel.
That's one reason gasoline now costs more than ever before, for this time of year.
The United States, long the world's most voracious consumer of fuel, still imports almost half of its crude oil, the raw material for gasoline and diesel. But starting in 2008, the country began exporting more refined petroleum products than it imported. And the gap keeps growing.
In the first nine months of this year, the United States exported 655 million barrels of finished petroleum products, including 121 million barrels of gasoline. At the same time, the country imported 264 million barrels of finished petroleum products, including 32 million barrels of gasoline, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The recession and tepid recovery have tempered America's thirst for gasoline, at the same time that drivers are turning toward more efficient cars. So refiners have found eager markets for their fuel elsewhere. The exports, in turn, help prop up gasoline prices here.
"Instead of that product backing up and depressing prices, it's being sent to other countries," said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service. "It's good news for the refining industries and their workers and the balance of trade and U.S. jobs."
But Kloza predicts the exports could turn into a hot-button issue with drivers next year, if gasoline prices increase.
"The average consumer may think, 'You mean I'm paying $4.25 instead of $3.95 because we're sending it to Brazil or Argentina? To hell with them,' " he said.
The exports are not the main reason gasoline prices are so high.
So far this year, the price of crude oil on the New York Mercantile Exchange has averaged $95 per barrel. Oil prices have been even higher in Europe. As a result, gasoline prices can't fall very far, even though domestic gasoline use peaked in 2007 and has remained weak since.
A gallon of regular gas now costs, on average, $3.29 nationwide, according to the AAA auto club. A year ago, the average stood at $2.88.
Gasoline demand will probably increase when the economic recovery gains firmer footing. But it may not rise to previous levels. Federal fuel-efficiency standards for cars are increasing, as is the amount of ethanol the government requires oil companies to blend into their gasoline. And with gasoline prices still high, consumers might be reluctant to increase their driving.
To some oil industry critics, the exports look like a deliberate effort to squeeze American drivers. Shipping fuel abroad, they say, prevents the domestic market from responding to weak demand the way it used to -- by lowering prices.
"It's a way to keep prices up," said Judy Dugan, research director with the Consumer Watchdog nonprofit group. "Overseas consumers are benefiting at a cost to domestic consumers."
Oil industry representatives bristle at that notion.
"That's just complete rubbish," said John Felmy, chief economist with the American Petroleum Institute lobbying group. The exports, he said, are helping keep afloat American refineries that have seen their profit margins shrivel in recent years.
"There's plenty of inventory out there, and it costs a lot to make because of the price of crude oil," he said.
(E-mail David R. Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more stories visit scrippsnews.com)