The shale oil revolution vaulted the United States to the top of the world’s production leaderboard.
The United States still imports 7.9 million barrels of foreign crude per day and a sizable chunk comes from Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter.
Even though imports from Saudi Arabia have declined sharply from 10 years ago, the kingdom remains the No. 2 supplier to the United States, behind only Canada.
Saudi oil represents about 11% of total oil imports, roughly on par with 1973, the year the kingdom sent oil prices spiking by launching an embargo that crippled the American economy.
“Anyone who thinks our shale oil boom means we can rely less on Saudi Arabia, doesn’t understand how the oil market works,” said Bob McNally, president of consulting firm Rapidan Energy Group and an energy official under President George W. Bush.
In fact, even as US oil production ramped up in September, so did purchases of Saudi oil. The United States imported 1.1 million barrels per day of Saudi oil last month, a 16-month high, according to unofficial statistics from research firm ClipperData.
The problem is that the shale oil coming out of the Permian Basin in Texas and elsewhere is a very light blend that doesn’t fit well with America’s Gulf Coast refineries.
To quench America’s thirst for gasoline and jet fuel, these decades-old refineries require a steady dose of medium and heavy grades of crude. Saudi Arabia’s crude is the perfect match. The United States consumed almost 20 million barrels per day of petroleum products last year.
US refineries are already geared as much as they can be to US shale, said Matt Smith, director of commodity research at ClipperData.
“They are maxed out,” Smith said.
That’s why US oil exports have spiked since Congress lifted an export ban. Gulf Coast refineries simply can’t process all that shale oil, so it gets sent to Europe, China and South America.
Beyond the crude it ships directly to the United States, Saudi Arabia has unmatched influence in world oil market. The kingdom is known as the central bank of oil. Mere words from Saudi Arabia’s oil minister can send prices surging or tumbling.
Saudi Arabia’s enormous sway is derived from the belief that it’s the only major oil producer with the firepower to quickly ramp up oil production. That so-called spare capacity gives Saudi Arabia vast power, especially now.
“That’s where Saudi Arabia’s real power comes. It’s not the cargo arriving at the terminal,” said McNally.
Instability in Venezuela has sent its oil exports crashing. And President Donald Trump’s sanctions on Iran could knock out 1.7 million barrels per day of exports around the world, according to Societe Generale.
In theory, Saudi Arabia could maintain its shipments of oil to the United States but still wreak havoc by announcing plans to cut overall production. Saudi Arabia released a statement on Sunday warning that sanctions would be met with “greater action.” The statement reminded the world that the kingdom “has an influential and vital role in the global economy.”
“There is little doubt that Saudi Arabia has the ability to single-handedly engineer another ‘oil shock,’” Caroline Bain, chief commodities economist at Capital Economics, wrote to clients on Monday.
But energy analysts warn that such a move would backfire.
By spiking prices, Saudi Arabia would only be encouraging more investment in US shale, renewable energy and electric vehicles. In other words, Saudi Arabia would be shooting itself in the foot.
“That would be a self-defeating strategy,” said Vincent Piazza, an energy analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “Demand erosion due to higher prices would create a negative feedback loop.”
Khalid al-Falih, Saudi Arabai’s oil minister, sought to ease fears about the kingdom taking any drastic actions.
“I want to assure markets and petroleum consumers around the world that we want to continue to support the growth of the global economy, the prosperity of consumers around the world,” he said in a speech in India on Monday, according to Bloomberg News.
The US-Saudi energy relationship is symbiotic. The United States was the fourth-leading destination for Saudi crude this year, behind Japan and fast-growing China and India, according to ClipperData.
And Saudi Arabia has a vested interest in shipping crude to the United States: The kingdom owns Motiva, America’s largest refinery. Aramco took full control of the Port Arthur, Texas, facility in 2017. About 28% of Saudi crude that flows to the United States has gone to Port Arthur this year, according to ClipperData.
Crude oil prices barely budged on Monday. Perhaps oil traders are betting US-Saudi energy ties are too deep to get broken by the current tensions.