NEW YORK -- For the first time, the No. 1 export of the U.S. -- the world's biggest gasoline user -- is fuel.
Measured in dollars, the nation is on pace this year to ship more gasoline, diesel and jet fuel than any other single export, according to Census data going back to 1990. It will also be the first year since 1949 that the U.S. has been a net exporter of these fuels.
Just how big of a shift is this? A decade ago, fuel wasn't among the top 25 exports. And for the last five years, the top U.S. export was aircraft.
The trend is significant because for decades, the U.S. has relied on huge imports of fuel from Europe in order to meet demand. It only reinforced the image of America as an energy hog.
And up until a few years ago, whenever gasoline prices climbed, there were complaints in Congress that U.S. refiners were not growing quickly enough to satisfy domestic demand.
That controversy would appear to be over.
Still, the U.S. is nowhere close to energy independence. The U.S. is still the world's largest importer of crude oil. From January to October, the country imported 2.7 billion barrels of oil worth roughly $280 billion.
Fuel exports, worth an estimated $88 billion in 2011, surged because:
--Crude oil, the raw material from which gasoline and other refined products are made, is a lot more expensive. Oil prices averaged $95 a barrel in 2011, while gasoline averaged $3.52 a gallon -- a record. A decade ago, oil averaged $26 a barrel, while gasoline averaged $1.44 a gallon.
--The volume of fuel exports is rising. The U.S. uses less fuel because of a weak economy and more efficient vehicles. That allows refiners to sell more fuel to rapidly growing economies in Latin America, for example. In 2011, U.S. refiners exported 117 million gallons per day of gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and other petroleum products, up from 40 million a decade earlier.
There's at least one domestic downside to the United States' increasing role as a fuel exporter. Experts said the trend helps explain why U.S. motorists are paying more for gasoline. The more fuel that's sent overseas, the less of a supply cushion there is at home.