Trump’s energy rhetoric familiar but reality different

Donald Trump will not be first president to pledge to usher in energy independence for US at ex­pense of oil producers such as Saudi Arabia.

Donald Trump meets with energy executives during a campaign stop in Denver, Colorado, last October. (Reuters)


2016/12/04 Issue: 84 Page: 21


The Arab Weekly
Jareer Elass



Washington - Donald Trump will not be the first US president to pledge to usher in energy independence for the United States at the ex­pense of oil producers such as Saudi Arabia. Nor, if history is any guide, will he be the last.

All one need do is look back 43 years to president Richard Nixon, who, in 1973, announced Project Independence, the first national energy programme with the aim of bringing about US energy self-suffi­ciency.

Nixon’s announcement occurred one month after the October war and three weeks after Arab oil pro­ducers — all members of the Organi­sation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) — declared an em­bargo against countries supporting Israel in the conflict, helping create the first energy crisis of the 1970s.

The goal of Project Independence was for the United States to gain en­ergy self-sufficiency by 1980. Virtu­ally every American president since Nixon has claimed to have the an­swer to solving US dependence on oil imports but each has fallen far short of attaining that goal.

Current US reliance on oil imports is lower — at about 24% as of 2015 — than in 1973 (35%) or from the peak in mid-2000s (around 60%). Part of the steep drop in import depend­ency is the result of the recent shale oil revolution.

In March, Trump said in an inter­view that the United States “des­perately needed” crude from the Arab Gulf a few years ago but now is on the verge of achieving energy independence thanks to the devel­opment of shale resources in places in the United States that “we never thought had oil”. Despite the boom in domestic shale oil production, the United States imports about 7 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil.

In a speech titled An America First Energy Plan delivered in North Da­kota last April, Trump extolled the untapped oil and natural gas assets in the United States that, when de­veloped, would allow the country “to become and stay totally inde­pendent of any need to import en­ergy from the OPEC cartel or any nations hostile to our interests”, Trump said.

He also said that “we will work with our Gulf allies to develop a positive energy relationship as part of our anti-terrorism strategy”.

Trump had put Saudi Arabia on notice during the presidential cam­paign, however, by suggesting that, under his presidency, the United States would be prepared to stop importing oil from the kingdom if Riyadh did not contribute ground troops to fighting the Islamic State. He has also insisted that the United States was not being financially compensated for the military pro­tection Washington has long pro­vided many countries, including the kingdom and claimed that “without us, Saudi Arabia wouldn’t exist for very long”.

The Saudi government was obvi­ously displeased with the sugges­tion of a potential US ban on Saudi oil, let alone the contention that Ri­yadh had been enjoying a free ride of US military protection. The day after Trump won the US presidential election, Saudi Oil Minister Khalid al-Falih diplomatically said in an in­terview that “at his heart, President-elect Trump will see the benefits [of Saudi oil imports] and I think the oil industry will also be advising him accordingly that blocking trade in any product is not healthy.”

Falih added: “The US continues to be a very important part of a global industry that is interconnected, that is dealing with a fungible commod­ity which is crude oil.”

Riyadh has no choice but to take a wait-and-see approach towards the Trump oil ban threat. The mercurial president-elect has already walked back on several of his most strident campaign declarations since win­ning the election.

Trump’s rhetoric targeting Saudi Arabia can be chalked up to his try­ing to win votes with oil industry workers and catering to US inde­pendent oil producers who strongly supported his campaign and helped advise him on his energy policy. That policy currently favours lifting the moratorium on energy develop­ment on federal lands, removing “unwarranted restrictions” on new drilling technologies and reinvigor­ating the US coal industry.

Should Trump follow through with his threat to ban Saudi crude imports, which he could do through an executive order, there would be obvious consequences: Saudi Ara­bia provides the US market with 1.1 million-1.3 million bpd of oil, which is a sizeable enough volume that it would have to be made up for by imports from several other foreign producers that may also end up on Trump’s hit list. The Saudis would have little problem finding buyers elsewhere for its redirected barrels.

Another wrinkle in Trump’s threat to ban Saudi oil is that state oil firm Saudi Aramco has a healthy US downstream presence, includ­ing being the sole ownership of the 603,000 bpd Port Arthur, Texas, re­finery after a joint venture breakup with Royal Dutch/Shell. The Port Arthur plant is the biggest producer of gasoline, diesel and other re­fined products in the United States. Should Saudi oil be banned from being processed at the refinery, the kingdom could retaliate by halting all production at the facility, causing a huge disruption in critical supplies that would reverberate throughout the United States.

Trump will have to consider these and other consequences before turning campaign rhetoric into pol­icy actions.


Jareer Elass is a Washington-based energy analyst, with 25 years of industry experience and a particular focus on the Arabian Gulf producers and OPEC.


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