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US still needs Middle East oil, OPEC spare capacity: analysts


US still relies on oil imports from Middle East, OPEC

Saudi Arabia is second-largest import source for US

Security of Iraq's oil industry is a concern

  • Author
  • Dania Saadi    Herman Wang
  • Editor
  • Claudia Carpenter
  • Commodity
  • Oil

The US still needs Middle East oil for stability and the spare capacity of OPEC member countries despite President Donald Trump's assertions to the contrary, analysts said at a forum on Sunday.

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"Clearly, oil from this region still matters," Helima Croft, managing director and global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets, told the Atlantic Council's Global Energy Forum in Abu Dhabi. "We still take imports into the United States, particularly the heavier barrels. The US story is, largely, a light story but also it's a globally traded product and so disruption here does affect prices."

Trump reiterated on Wednesday that the US is energy-independent and does not need Middle East oil.

Although the US is the world's biggest producer of liquid oils and is set to pump 13 million b/d of crude in 2020, it is forecast to consume some 21 million b/d in 2020, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

The US imported 3.04 million b/d of crude oil in May, according to the latest monthly figures from the EIA.

"One thing I would say is – I was saying this a lot last year – is when President Trump is tweeting about OPEC and saying, OPEC, we need more barrels, when he's asking Saudi Arabia for more barrels that means that OPEC matters," Croft said. "It means that this region matters, and there's only certain countries that can provide additional barrels if it's needed on the market."

In 2018, Saudi Arabia was the second-biggest source of US oil imports after Canada, accounting for 9% of the total, according to the EIA.


OPEC, which pumps about one-third of the world's crude supply, represented 17% of total US oil imports in May, according to the EIA.

"And so we still need – if we're going to have a disruption we will still be looking to Saudi Arabia to make up for it, if we don't want to draw from our Strategic Petroleum Reserve," Croft said.

OPEC has spare oil capacity ranging between 3-3.5 million b/d, with two thirds of that figure present in Gulf countries, the secretary general of the organization, Mohammad Barkindo, told reporters last week. The EIA, using a tighter definition, estimates global spare production capacity at 1.63 million b/d, all held by OPEC's Middle East members.

Croft's comments were echoed by Amos Hochstein, senior vice president, marketing, of Tellurian and a former top energy diplomat under the previous administration of Barack Obama.

"I don't feel comfortable with the concept of US energy independence," Hochstein said. "It's become more and more of a frequent mantra in the United States that I just don't feel is accurate for exactly the reason that Helima just said, which is a disruption anywhere has impacts everywhere and that's including the United States."

Hochstein said the US still relies on energy imports and will continue to do so.

"We still import because we have balances in the market and we import what we don't produce instead of making significant costly changes to our slates and refineries to just use the American crude," he added.


Analysts at the forum also warned that potential supply disruptions in Iraq, where the US killed a top Iranian commander prompting retaliatory strikes from Tehran on US troops stationed in bases in the country, won't be easy to make up as was the case after the September 14 attacks in Saudi Arabia.

"But if you had a situation like that in Iraq, an attack on an Iraqi facility, I don't think it's clear at all that they have the type of redundancies that they could recover from it, again," Croft said. "And so I do think that we still have to be concerned about the Iranians going back to the more shadow wars in terms of the effects that could have on infrastructure, and Iraq is where I am most concerned."

Iraq, OPEC's second-largest oil producer, said last week that it is producing 4.46 million b/d, in line with its OPEC quota, without any disruption to output or exports from recent events.

The armed drone attack on two key Saudi Aramco facilities in September temporarily knocked down nearly 5 percent of the world's global oil supply, but production and capacity were back to normal by November, Saudi officials said at the time.

"There is a lot more risk to energy infrastructure, pipelines, terminals, export facilities, tankers throughout the Gulf," Hochstein said. "And this idea that we can have it both ways; that we can have audiences in this room and across New York and London trading floors that can say 'I truly believe there is not going to be a resolution to the conflict between the United States and Iran. And I truly believe that the price of oil will remain exactly the same as it is today,' I think is a bit of a wishful thinking."

--Edited by Claudia Carpenter,