President-elect Donald Trump is very unlikely to restrict imports of crude oil from Saudi Arabia despite threats to do so issued during the election campaign.
Trump is first and foremost a showman and impresario rather than a policy wonk. Much of what he said on the campaign trail was intended to mobilise support rather than provide a detailed programme for government.
The media “never takes (Trump) seriously but it always takes him literally. I think a lot of voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally,” as technology billionaire Peter Thiel observed in October.
The prospect of an import ban on Saudi crude is one of those things he said that should not be taken seriously but was meant to galvanise support from oil workers hit by the downturn.
Trump warned that he would be prepared to stop buying oil from Saudi Arabia unless the kingdom provided ground troops to fight ISIL.
He also insisted the kingdom and other Gulf oil producers should compensate the United States for the enormous cost of providing them with military protection.
In fact he seemed preoccupied by compensation for U.S. military protection rather than ground troops.
“We are not being reimbursed for the our protection of many of the countries … including Saudi Arabia,” Trump complained in an interview.
“We protect countries, and take tremendous monetary hits protecting countries,” Trump said. “We lose, monetarily, everywhere. And yet, without us, Saudi Arabia wouldn’t exist for very long.”
Trump said the United States “desperately needed” oil from the Gulf a few years ago but now was on the verge of achieving energy independence thanks to the shale revolution.
The United States had found oil in places “we never thought had oil” with the result there is a glut with “ships out at sea that are loaded up and they don’t even know where to dump it”.
“They’re closing wells all over the place,” Trump said, presumably referring to marginally economic U.S. oil and gas wells being shut in owing to the slump in prices.
Trump has been supported by Continental Resources Chief Executive Harold Hamm, who acted as one of the campaign’s principal advisers and has been tipped as a possible choice as energy secretary.
Hamm has in turn been critical about Saudi Arabia’s and OPEC’s role in the 1973 oil embargo and an evangelist for developing domestic oil and gas resources to provide energy independence.
CARTEL, DUMPER OR BOTH?
The United States has always had a complicated relationship with Saudi Arabia and other members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
The complexity stems from the fact that United States is simultaneously one of the world’s largest oil producers as well as its largest consumer and a large net importer.
At times, U.S. policymakers have accused OPEC of being a cartel which has sought to keep prices artificially high to the detriment of U.S. motorists and other consumers.
But at other times the United States has accused Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members of flooding the market, dumping oil, and predatory pricing designed to put U.S. oil producers out of business.
The foundation of OPEC in 1960 was strongly criticised by the U.S. media for “interference with the principle of free enterprise” and the formation of an “international cartel”.
Public hostility towards OPEC intensified following the Arab oil embargo in 1973/74 and the steep increases in the price of crude during the rest of the 1970s.
But OPEC was also criticised for flooding the global market during the price crisis of 1985/86 which resulted in widespread bankruptcies in oil-producing areas of the United States.
Vice-President George H W Bush was even sent to Riyadh to plead with Saudi Arabia to push up prices to save Texas producers.
More recently, OPEC has been blamed by some in the U.S. oil industry for price slumps in 1998/99 and again since 2014, provoking a new round of complaints about predatory pricing.
U.S. OIL INDEPENDENTS
Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members have always had a particularly fraught relationship with small and medium-sized “independent” oil producers of the United States.
U.S. independent oil producers have always been among the most vulnerable to price swings and therefore the most closely concerned with OPEC.
The major international oil companies have integrated operations which means they produce some oil within the United States but also import foreign crude to feed their refineries.
The integrated companies have always been strong supporters of free trade in both crude and refined products since it allows them to optimise their refinery production.
But the independent oil producers have often favoured protectionist policies to blunt competition from cheap imported crudes.
During the 1950s and 1960s, rising production from the supergiant oilfields of the Middle East squeezed U.S. independents particularly hard.
The independents fought to restrict the amount of foreign crude that could be imported into the United States.
Pressure from the independents resulted in the introduction of quotas under the voluntary oil import program which became the mandatory oil import program in 1959 and lasted until 1973.
The Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association (TIPRO) openly supported the creation of OPEC in 1960 in the hope it would restrict foreign oil production and imports.
But as Middle East producers added millions of barrels per day of extra output in the 1960s, the Texas Railroad Commission imposed increasingly tough restrictions on domestic producers in a bid to stabilise prices.
U.S. independent producers were therefore big beneficiaries of the oil shocks of the 1970s and again from the rise in oil prices between 2004 and 2014.
But they have been at the forefront of complaints about dumping and predatory pricing by OPEC during the busts of the mid-1980s and again in the 1990s and since 2014.
U.S. oil producers have complained bitterly that foreign crude imports have continued and even increased since 2014 even as domestic oil drilling and output have fallen.
TRUMP’S OIL POLICY?
Given that independent oil and gas producers have been among Trump’s strongest supporters and advisers on energy issues, it is no surprise that his campaign views reflect their perspective and concerns.
Like most other aspects of Trump’s programme, the details of his energy policy have yet to be worked out.
But a future Trump administration is very unlikely to try to restrict oil imports for practical as well as political reasons.
The markets for crude and refined fuels are fundamentally global so it makes no sense to talk about achieving energy independence.
The United States has never relied on crude from the Middle East but its partners in Europe and Asia have been much bigger importers.
And the law of one price ensures that oil price shocks in Europe and Asia affect consumers in the United States.
Furthermore, the United States remains far from self-sufficient in crude. Even at the height of shale drilling boom, the country still needed to import more than 7 million barrels a day of crude to feed its refineries.
Most refineries require a blend of light and heavy crudes to operate efficiently. While domestic shale oil is mostly very light, imported foreign crudes, especially from Saudi Arabia, are heavier, and needed for blending.
If a Trump administration banned oil imports from Saudi Arabia, the shortfall of medium and heavy crudes would have to come from other producers: Iraq? Iran? Russia? Venezuela?
The major oil companies, including Exxon and Chevron, which have significant political influence, will resist any efforts to restrict the choice of crudes available for their refineries.
Independent refiners, many of which are also politically connected, will also fiercely oppose any measures that restrict their crude selection and drive up input costs.
The United States cannot easily discriminate against imports from Saudi Arabia because both countries are members of the World Trade Organization and bound to extend each other most-favoured-nation treatment.
Thanks to the shale revolution, the United States has emerged as a major exporter of refined products including gasoline and distillate, so it has a strong interest in upholding free trade in oil and fuels.
Independent producers, led by Hamm’s own Continental, lobbied hard for Congress to lift the ban on domestic crude exports, citing the importance of free trade, so it would be inconsistent to ban imports.
Finally, the mandatory oil import programme was an administrative nightmare which failed to work properly and spawned a huge number of distortions, and no one wants to repeat that unhappy experience.