While gasoline exports in 2012 remain high by historical standards, this year has yet to see the export growth of the past few years. However, the decrease in gasoline imports into the United States that has accompanied the export increase trend has continued. While the U.S. remains a net gasoline importer, monthly data through the first quarter show the slowest import flows in more than a decade (Figure 1). Notwithstanding the uptick in gasoline imports seen last week, the sluggish import stream into the United States has been confirmed in weekly data as well.
The decline in gasoline imports in 2012 fits into the longer trend, which began midway through the last decade. Based on monthly data for the first quarter of 2012, gasoline imports into the United States averaged 715,000 barrels per day (bbl/d), 114,000 bbl/d (14 percent) lower than during the same period in 2011. This marked the lowest level of imports for the first quarter since 2001. A large factor behind this decline has been sagging gasoline consumption. In the first quarter of 2007, U.S. drivers consumed just over 9.0 million bbl/d of gasoline, a record high for the first three months of the year; in the five years since, consumption has fallen about 450,000 bbl/d (5 percent) to average less than 8.6 million bbl/d for the first quarter of 2012. Supporting the decrease in imports has been the growth in ethanol blending into gasoline, which increased about 440,000 bbl/d between the first quarter of 2007 and 2012. Combining the effects of lower consumption and more ethanol blending, the domestic requirement for petroleum-based gasoline components has fallen almost 900,000 bbl/d since the first quarter of 2007. Imports have dropped about 330,000 bbl/d (32 percent) over the same period.
Import flows are affected by supply and demand conditions for gasoline across international markets; these balances are reflected in geographical price differentials among those markets. Looking at the price differentials between conventional gasoline in New York Harbor, the market hub for the U.S. East Coast, and Europe's Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp (ARA) hub can provide insight into U.S. import patterns. The East Coast is the largest regional market for U.S. gasoline imports and is important to understanding national import trends. Regional gasoline demand significantly outstrips regional production capacity; on average, 86 percent of U.S. gasoline imports have come into the East Coast in the last ten years.