The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Saudi oil strike renews debate over U.S. energy dominance

with Paulina Firozi


Never let a crisis go to waste, as the saying goes.

Those trying to shape U.S. energy policy are heeding that advice — versions of which have been attributed to Winston Churchill and Rahm Emanuel — in the wake of a series of suspected drone attacks targeting Saudi Arabia's oil facilities.

Those seeking to wean the United States off of petroleum point to the precariousness of the world's oil supply as all the more reason for the U.S. to double down on alternatives to gasoline-powered cars and other clean technology.

But those in the oil and natural gas business, along with their allies in Washington, say the problem isn't with petroleum itself — it's where it comes from. They point to the strikes against the desert kingdom as reason for the United States to secure sources of oil and gas within its own borders.

At the center of the forthcoming U.S. response to the strike is President Trump, who is already arguing that the U.S. position as the world's top oil producer helps insulate it from the loss of Saudi oil.

To address the shortfall, Trump said he has authorized the release of oil from the nation's strategic reserves — “if needed,” he tweeted — to blunt the impact on American motorists. The blasts at facilities in the districts of Khurais and Abqaiq forced Saudi officials to suspend production of 5.7 million barrels of crude per day. That's nearly 6 percent of the 100 million barrels consumed every day.

But Sen. Edward J. Markey, one of Trump's chief environmental critics in Congress, called tapping the strategic oil supply, stored in caverns under Louisiana and Texas, a foolish waste of resources.

Putting an even finer point on this criticism, the Massachusetts Democrat, one of the chief sponsors of the Green New Deal, reiterated his call for an economywide transition away from greenhouse gases in the wake of the attack. Markey also promised to introduce legislation to reinstate a ban on selling U.S. crude abroad.

“We need to end, once and for all, our dependence on oil from the Middle East and the kinds of volatility that comes with unrest in the region,” Markey said in a statement. “Energy independence won’t be found in a Saudi Oil field, but in an American solar farm.”

The GOP-controlled Congress, working with President Obama, lifted the decades-long ban on crude exports in 2015 as the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, led to a boom in domestic oil and gas production. But now a number of candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for president — including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — have called for reinstalling the export moratorium.

But Rick Perry, Trump's energy secretary, reached the opposite conclusion after the Saudi attack. The United States needs to sell more of its oil abroad to water down the impact of oil reductions such as this, he said.

“This ought to be a wake-up call all across this country, particularly around the world, but particularly in America, the No. 1 oil- and gas-producing country in the world. We need to build out our infrastructure to ensure America’s record amount of oil supply gets to the global marketplace,” Perry said on CNBC on Monday.

Perry also admonished another Democrat, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose administration is blocking the construction of pipelines to get natural gas from Pennsylvania to New England, which during the winter relies at times on imported gas. 

“Their governor and their legislature think that that’s good politics,” Perry said. “Well, it may be good politics internally in New York, but it’s bad national security.” To that end, Perry's counterparts at the Environmental Protection Agency are trying to limit states' power to block pipelines and other energy projects.

Tim Charters, vice president of governmental and political affairs at the National Ocean Industries Association, which represents offshore oil and gas drillers, saw the Saudi oil outage as reason to pursue yet another Trump administration goal.

To secure its independence from oil-rich foreigners, the United States should lean into — not away from, as Markey suggests — its own oil boom by opening more of the U.S. continental shelf for offshore drilling, he contended. 

“The fragility in the Middle East shows that those who say we can turn our back on American-produced energy are foolish and risk our economic and energy security,” Charters said. “In reality, the U.S. should be looking to broaden offshore energy exploration to discover new resources, secure our energy future and strengthen our economy.”

Early on, the Trump administration tried to plan lease sales for untapped swaths of the Atlantic, Pacific and Florida Gulf. But the effort stalled as Republicans along the coasts voiced opposition to the drilling proposals.

Constantine Samaras, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon, offered a bit of advice for Trump on Twitter following the bombings. He called on the country to expand tax breaks for electric vehicles and double funding for the federal government's energy technology incubator. 

"The way to insulate the United States economy from an oil price spike is to make the transportation sector much less reliant on oil in any form," Samaras said in an interview. "We basically have all our transportation eggs in the oil basket, and as long as that's the case, the economy is vulnerable."

That advice, though, runs counter to what the administration is actually doing. The White House has called for an end to both electric vehicle tax credits and the Energy Department incubator program.

In the end, it's Trump's takeaways from the attacks that will end up mattering the most. Trump has concluded because of the decade-long surge in U.S. oil production, "[w]e don’t need Middle Eastern Oil & Gas, & in fact have very few tankers there."

Trump is almost right. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects the United States will be a net energy exporter by next year. 

But there are a few wrinkles in Trump's rosy picture. Gulf Coast refineries are generally designed not to process the light, sweet crude produced here at home — but rather the heavy, sour crude that comes from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

What's more, because the price of oil is set by the push and pull between buyers and sellers around the world, American motorists are not as invulnerable to oil market fluctuations as Trump suggests. In fact, drivers could see a 10- to 25-cent jump in gasoline prices in the coming weeks, according to The Post's Taylor Telford and Thomas Heath.

"What really mattered is the price people pay at the pump," said Samantha Gross, a Brookings Institution fellow working on energy and environmental policy. "And because oil is priced on a global market, just because it's produced here doesn't mean we get some sort of special deal when there's an interruption somewhere."


More on the strike in Saudi Arabia:

  • Trump stops short of directly blaming Iran: While Trump wouldn’t say unambiguously that Iran was responsible for the attack on Saudi oil infrastructure, he told reporters in the Oval Office: “It’s looking that way.” “Trump’s reluctance to assign blame appeared to reflect his long-standing desire to keep the United States out of wars, despite his tweet Sunday that the United States was ‘locked and loaded depending on verification,’” The Post’s Shane Harris, Erin Cunningham and Kareem Fahim report. They note officials in Washington and Riyadh have analyzed satellite photos but haven’t presented conclusive information pointing to Iran as directing or launching the attack. U.S. officials have rejected claims that Houthi rebels in Yemen were behind it.
  • Who buys Saudi Arabia’s oil?: In this graphic, The Post’s Harry Stevens, Lauren Tierney, Adrian Blanco and Laris Karklis detail which countries are impacted the most by the attack. Topping the list are Japan, China, South Korea and India. The United States was the No. 5 importer of Saudi crude in 2018. 

— Corn wars: President Trump has tentatively backed a plan to increase the amount of biofuels required to be blended into the nation’s gas supply, Reuters reports. “Under the plan, the U.S. EPA will calculate a three-year rolling average of total biofuels gallons exempted from the mandates under its Small Refinery Exemption program and add that figure to its annual biofuel blending quotas each year, the sources said,” per the report. “For 2020, that figure would be 1.35 billion gallons, according to a Reuters calculation.”

 — FERC slashes oversight unit: The chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Neil Chatterjee, will announce Thursday the agency has eliminated its Division of Energy Market Oversight, E&E News reports. The realignment  of the agency — which oversees U.S. natural gas and electric power markets and other energy and financial markets — means some responsibilities will be doled out to other FERC offices. Tyson Slocum, director of advocacy group Public Citizen's Energy Program said such a “significant agency reorganization ... should involve a briefing for Congress to explain its impact, at a minimum.” “Changes to FERC's oversight of market manipulation could also rile some lawmakers on Capitol Hill,” E&E adds.

— Advocacy group sues Trump administration over “attempts to politicize NOAA”: The liberal activist organization Democracy Forward has filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration, urging the release of documents related to the February ousting of Tim Gallaudet from the role of acting NOAA administrator, which the group suggested was part of a trend of politicizing the science agency. Democracy Forward pointed to recent reports that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross threatened to fire a NOAA official over tweets refuting Trump’s assertions about Hurricane Dorian and Alabama. The group cited concerns about Ross’s removal of Gallaudet, who it said had a “reputation for refusing to subject NOAA’s climate research to political interference.”


— Man, it’s a hot one: The northern hemisphere just recorded its hottest summer on record, according to newly released data from NOAA. The agency found that last month tied as the second-hottest August in the agency’s 140-year records, The Post’s Andrew Freedman reports. “What’s remarkable about 2019′s record warmth is that it comes in the absence of a strong El Niño event in the tropical Pacific Ocean,” he writes.

One big reason is climate change: As average temperatures worldwide surge, “it is becoming easier to exceed climate benchmarks even without strong El Niño events. For example, according to NOAA, the five hottest summers in the Northern Hemisphere have each occurred during the past five years.”

— The bots are here: There appears to have been a recent spike in Twitter activity that includes targeted attacks against scientists and environmental activists. Bot Sentinel — a new tool tracking automated accounts that is being used to combat the spread of misinformation — noticed, for example, that “climate change” was a top trending topic after the marathon town hall hosted by CNN, according to Inside Climate News. “It is difficult to divine whether the bursts of ‘climate change’-related Twitter activity are spontaneous or part of coordinated campaigns; some experts say that likely a small number of influencers are touching off postings by a far larger number of followers,” per the report. 



  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources holds a hearing on sourcing and use of minerals needed for clean energy technologies.

Coming Up

  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change holds a hearing on pathways to net-zero industrial emissions on Wednesday.
  • The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment holds a hearing on the priorities and policy initiatives under the Clean Water Act on Wednesday.


— That’s not a mountain lion: As The Post’s Dana Hedgpeth reports, after a District resident thought she saw a mountain lion in her yard via her home security camera, wildlife experts said the animal was in fact only a “common domestic cat” — albeit a very large one.

A large domestic cat was spotted on home surveillance video in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., on Sept. 15. It was not a mountain lion. (Video: Giulia di Marzo)