Friday, August 17, 2012

U.S. Reliance on Oil From Saudi Arabia Is Growing Again

HOUSTON — The United States is increasing its dependence on oil from Saudi Arabia, raising its imports from the kingdom by more than 20 percent this year, even as fears of military conflict in the tinderbox Persian Gulf region grow.

The increase in Saudi oil exports to the United States began slowly last summer and has picked up pace this year. Until then, the United States had decreased its dependence on foreign oil and from the Gulf in particular.

This reversal is driven in part by the battle over Iran’s nuclear program. The United States tightened sanctions that hampered Iran’s ability to sell crude, the lifeline of its troubled economy, and Saudi Arabia agreed to increase production to help guarantee that the price did not skyrocket. While prices have remained relatively stable, and Tehran’s treasury has been squeezed, the United States is left increasingly vulnerable to a region in turmoil.

The jump in Saudi oil production has been welcomed by Washington and European governments, but Saudi society faces its own challenges, with the recent deaths of senior members of the royal family and sectarian strife in the eastern part of the country, making the stability of Saudi energy and political policies uncertain.

The United States has had a political alliance with the Saudi leadership that has lasted for decades, one that has become even more pivotal to Washington during the turmoil of the Arab spring and rising hostilities with Iran over that nation’s nuclear program. (Saudi Arabia and Iran are bitter regional rivals.)

The development underscores how difficult it is for the United States to lower its dependence on foreign oil — especially the heavy grades of crude that Saudi Arabia exports — even as domestic oil production is soaring. It is a development that has alarmed conservative and liberal foreign policy experts alike, especially with oil prices and Mideast tensions rising in recent weeks.

“At a time when there is a rising chance of either a nuclear Iran or an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, we should be trying to reduce our reliance on oil going through the Strait of Hormuz and not increasing it,” said Michael Makovsky, a former Defense Department official who worked on Middle East issues in the George W. Bush administration.

Senior Iranian officials have repeatedly threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow neck through which most Gulf oil is shipped, and the Iranian navy has held maneuvers to back up the threats. Most analysts say it is doubtful the Iranians would take such an extreme measure because that would block exports vital to the country’s economy, but the United States Navy has been preparing for such a contingency. More


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