In 2011, the United States could become a net exporter of petroleum products — gasoline, diesel and other oil-based fuels — for the first time in 62 years. Don’t confuse this with, “U.S. on track to become energy independent.” The fuels we export are at least partly dependent on the oil we import. The possibility for energy independence is there — but the administration’s policies will likely continue to conspire to hamstring domestic energy production.

Nevertheless, this is still an important milestone, as The Wall Street Journal reports:

So long as the U.S. remains the world’s biggest net importer of crude oil, currently taking in nine million barrels per day, it isn’t likely to become energy independent anytime soon. Yet its growing presence as an overall exporter of fuels made from crude gives it greater influence in the global energy market.

If the trend toward net exports persists, it could also influence the national political debate over U.S. energy policy, which has been driven primarily by concerns about upheaval in the Middle East over the past decade. The independence of the U.S. from foreign oil sources has long been a lightning-rod issue in Washington, one further inflamed by last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Supporters of off-shore drilling have used the desire for independence to push their cause, setting up a battle with environmental groups and others who prefer a shift away from carbon-based fuels.

The growth in exports is part of a “transformation of the energy system,” says Ed Morse, global head of commodity research at Citigroup Inc. “It’s the beginning signs of a process that will continue for the next decade and will point toward energy independence.”

The reversal raises the prospect of the U.S. becoming a major provider of various types of energy to the rest of the world, a status that was once virtually unthinkable. The U.S. already exports vast amounts of coal, and companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp. are pursuing or exploring plans to liquefy newly abundant natural gas and send it overseas.

“Newly abundant natural gas” might just be an understatement. As Oklahoma-City-based Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon once put it, the United States could easily become the Saudi Arabia of natural gas. Enough natural gas lurks beneath the surface of shale and other formations to fuel the United States for 200+ years.

Unfortunately, far from reassuring non-solar-and-wind-energy production companies of a stable work environment, the administration continues to create a climate of uncertainty for oil and natural gas companies, with an ineffective permitting process and costly, ill-advised regulations. While these companies continue to innovate and demonstrate American ingenuity, developing new technologies that allow us to access natural gas as never before, the Department of Energy wastes tax dollars on solar companies like Solyndra.

That the U.S. might soon be a net fuel exporter is a testament to the productivity of American companies — and an exhortation to explore the realistic possibilities for actual energy independence.