An unusual finding showed up on the country's oil export records this week.
The United States exported an average of 9,000 barrels of oil per day to China in January, according to a U.S. Energy Information Administration report released this week. The government warned readers not to make too much of the news, calling it “a rare event.”
Still, the report tells an interesting story about the nation's changing oil environment.
The January oil exported to China was foreign oil loaded on a tanker ship that made a brief stop in an American port before heading back overseas. It likely was one shipment.
The United States exports only a tiny percentage of its daily oil production. Almost all of that crude flows to Canada.
It is very difficult for oil companies to export crude because they must first gain a license from the Bureau of Industry and Security and meet many other requirements. Most operators have never tried.
The process hasn't been an issue for much of the past half-century as the United States has rapidly increased its oil demand while domestic production has dropped.
Because the country used almost every drop it produced and imported much more, oil exports haven't been necessary, except for those to a few Canadian border communities.
The tight oil boom over the past seven years has begun to rapidly change the country's oil trends.
The United States still imports about 45 percent of its total oil use, but that number is down from 60 percent in 2005.
While we're still dependent on international sources for 45 percent of our oil, January's Chinese oil export illustrates how much things have changed.
Loading 11 million gallons of oil onto a ship and sailing it halfway around the world is not a thrifty prospect. But apparently when the tanker reached American soil earlier this year, it couldn't find a market — a scenario that would not have happened just a few years ago.
It seems there was too much oil from North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas and other parts of the country to make that particular shipment of oil needed.
So the tanker backed up, turned around and headed to China instead.
If the country's oil producers have their way, this kind of story will become much more common.