When Americans think of oil, they immediately imagine the Middle-East. The association is so strong that we assume the region is far more integral to our fossil fuel supply than it really is. This is somewhat understandable given the impact 1973 oil crisis, led largely by Middle-Eastern members of OPEC, which brought the region into the center-stage of public and political discourse.
But times have changed, even though this four-decade perception hasn’t. That’s the conclusion of the UT Energy Poll conducted annually by the University of Texas. Among other things, it asked where respondents where they think imported oil comes from. As the following graph shows, most Americans are way off the mark.
Nearly 60 percent of Americans think Saudi Arabia is our top source of foreign oil, followed by another 15 percent who believe it is Iraq. That means three quarters of Americans think the Middle-East is our number one source of oil.
But the reality is virtually opposite: our top source of oil by far is Canada, our largest trading partner, with Saudi Arabia accounting for a little over half as much. Meanwhile, Mexico and Venezuela each offer nearly double the imported oil of Iraq, a country seen as the poster child for an oil-driven economy and foreign policy.
The remaining 27 percent of our oil imports is shared by several countries (including Middle-Eastern states), meaning that no single nation has overwhelming influence over our foreign oil supply (barring the unlikely scenario of Canada cutting us off). Plus, it is worth pointing out that the U.S. still gets a large proportion of its oil from domestic sources, with some untapped wells promising near-total self-sufficiency in the future.
In any case, this misconception has consequences. If the overwhelming majority of Americans think we are so heavily dependent on Middle-Eastern oil, they may support initiatives that might otherwise have little traction. Securing a safer global oil supply is widely seen to have motivated U.S. involvement in both Iraq Wars, while oil companies have used the fear of Middle-Eastern dependency to justify ramping up domestic oil production whatever the environmental consequences.
As Sheril Kirshenbaum, the director of the UT Poll, wrote in Scientific American in October, “Our attitudes eventually shape future policy decisions and define global energy priorities.”