Trade-deficit figures for September show that Americans spent "only" $3.6 billion overseas on oil and refined petroleum products, down from $4.4 billion in August. That $800-million difference, as it happens, accounted for just half of the improvement in the month-to-month deficit. Does this signify a trend in the making? Hardly. Energy experts point out that September's oil-import bill looked good only in comparison to the unusually heavy buying of the previous month. What all the long-term signs point to is an increasing volume of foreign-oil purchases, undercutting efforts to reduce the trade deficit.
Oil is currently responsible for about 30% of that $165-billion-plus deficit. Oil imports have averaged 6.5 million barrels a day this year. That's about 40% of total consumption. By the mid-1990s, at current trends, between 48% and 60% of U.S. oil demand will be met from overseas. Why this swelling appetite for foreign oil? One reason is that the United States, a high-cost energy producer, has lost more than 1 million barrels a day of production in the last few years as cheaper oil made marginal wells uneconomical to operate. A second reason is that that U.S. demand for oil, spurred by lower prices, has risen by about 800,000 barrels a day over the last two years.