Few topics have received as much attention over the past year as the concept of an energy independent United States. In fact, energy independence featured prominently in the run-up to the US presidential election. But what does energy independence really mean?

In the US, energy can be broken down mainly into electrical power – which accounts for 63% of total US primary energy consumption – and liquid transportation fuels – which account for the remaining 37%. As reported earlier this year in Breaking Energy, the US is already effectively energy independent when it comes to power generation, so it is worth instead focusing on the transportation side of the equation, where the issue of importing energy is more relevant.

The dramatic increase in US oil production over the past few years reversed a multi-year trend in which the country was producing less oil and importing greater volumes as a result. This production renaissance, which is largely attributed to a mixture of technology and commodity price dynamics, is what sparked much of the current energy independence excitement.

When talking about oil production, it’s important to specify the distinction between ‘crude oil’ and ‘total liquids.’ The former is simple and designates crude only, while the latter includes natural gas liquids, and depending on the source can also include refinery gains, biofuels and other marginal sources. With regard to US output, the difference between crude oil and total liquids is approximately 2 to 2.5 million barrels per day. For example, according to the EIA, in 2011 the US produced roughly 5.7 mmb/d of crude oil and according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy – a respected and widely-used industry source – the US produced 7.8 million barrels per day of total liquids.

At the same time, the US consumed 18.8 mmb/d of total liquids in 2011 according to the BP data.

That 11 mmb/d gap is the largest – and probably least understood – challenge the US would need to overcome in order to achieve oil self-sufficiency.

While output has been increasing – it grew 3.6 percent year-on-year from 2010 to 2011 – there is still a long way to go. US total liquids production –which is currently the world’s third largest – would need to more than double to meet the nation’s current rate of total consumption.

It is important to remember this is a simplified version of US oil market fundamentals as the country exports petroleum products, and the BP consumption data include ethanol and biodiesel while there are a host of technical factors that could alter the bottom line figures. Additionally, as a developed economy, US petroleum liquids consumption is widely expected to flatten and decrease over the long term – it decreased 1.9 percent year-over-year from 2010 to 2011 – as engine technology advances and the entire transportation system gains efficiency.

Nevertheless, when considering energy independence, it’s important to clarify what segment of the energy complex is being analyzed and to remain cognizant of the fundamentals. The US alone accounts for roughly 20% of the world’s total petroleum liquids consumption, and while it is not impossible, becoming oil self-sufficient is almost certainly more difficult than some have suggested.