America’s relationship with the Middle East’s energy resources is changing as U.S. domestic oil production continues to grow. A combination of hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling and advanced seismic technologies have contributed to the largest annual growth in U.S. crude oil production since Colonel Edwin Drake first drilled for oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859. Most of the crude oil is coming from shale formations in North Dakota and Texas – what we call “light tight oil.” Since 2010, the United States has, on average, increased monthly crude oil production by 50,000 barrels a day.
Not all of this U.S. light tight oil is displacing Middle East crude, of course. A number of factors matter, most importantly the crude oil grade. The United States is producing light tight oil, that is, low-density crude oil, whereas the United States imports heavier crudes from the Persian Gulf, including from Saudi Arabia. Moreover, U.S. refineries have been increasingly geared to absorb heavier crudes, from the Persian Gulf, but more so from Canada, Mexico and Venezuela.
Nevertheless, the glut in U.S. crude oil production and declining demand for oil (a consequence of slow economic growth and more fuel efficient vehicles) have contributed to a powerful notion that the United States is relying less and less on oil from the Persian Gulf and could conceivably help wean America off crude oil imports from the Middle East entirely (a debatable point).
Whether or not one believes that the United States can break the tether to Middle East oil, U.S. allies and partners in the Persian Gulf are increasingly nervous about America’s long-term security commitment to the region. After all, if the United States no longer relies on energy from the region, why should American foot the bill for protecting the sea lanes – that backbone of the crude oil trade in the region – or so the narrative goes.
The United States has a number of stakes in stability of the Persian Gulf oil trade even if it does rely less on oil from the region. Supply shocks will contribute to higher global oil prices, which will be felt at home. Moreover, supply shocks are damaging to our allies, particularly those in East Asia that have grown more dependent on oil and gas from the Middle East and North Africa. But there are other legitimate security concerns as well, which were not far from General Martin Dempsey’s mind when he responded to a question on Monday about how the American energy revolution will impact U.S. interests and presence in the Persian Gulf. Here’s what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said:
If by 2017 the United States can achieve some level of energy independence, why in the world would we continue to be concerned about the energy that flows out of – out of the Gulf?
Well, look, my answer to that is I didn’t go to the Gulf in 1991 and stay there for about the next 20 years because of oil. That’s not why I went. It’s not why my children went. It’s –and we went there because we thought that a region of the world where we had – where we had not, except for a few bilateral relationships – where we hadn’t invested much of our, let’s call it, bandwidth, intellectual energy, commitment – now, we went there in ’91 because of the – of the aggression of Saddam Hussein, but we stayed there because I think we came to the realization that the future of the region was tied to our future, and not through this thing called oil but rather through the – as I said earlier, the shared interest in a common future where people would be able to build a better life and where threats could be managed collaboratively, not by the United States uniquely but by the relationships we would build on the basis of common interests.
So when I hear about in 2017, you know, oil won’t be as big a factor for us – and that’s great. I hope we do achieve energy independence. But I can assure you that at least from a military perspective – and I can only speak, as I dress, from the military perspective – that the continued development of capabilities – military capabilities, notably, in my world, but also partnerships and trust that we build by working together, by exchanging officers and noncommissioned officers in our professional military schools, that on that basis, you will find –you will find that the future will be a period of greater commitment.
Now, you know, if you measure our commitment in terms of numbers of boots on the ground and numbers of aircraft and number of aircraft carriers, I think you’ll probably –you know, there’ll always be this debate about inclining or declining commitment. But that’s not what the commitment’s all about, really, in my view. As I said, I went to – I went to the Gulf in ’91, spent almost the next 20 years there on and off and didn’t do it for oil.
So we have two powerful strategic cross-currents that the Obama administration will have to confront in the near term.
This week marks the anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a solemn reminder for some that the United States should be less engaged in the Middle East, not more. Add this to the notion that the United States could break the tether to Middle East oil, and the domestic narrative speaks for itself.
At the same time, though, a credible U.S. security commitment to our partners in the Persian Gulf may be the only way to allay concerns about security challenges in the region. Take for example, Iran. My colleagues Colin Kahl, Melissa Dalton and Matt Irvine recently published a report assessing the possibility that an Iranian bomb could lead to Saudi Arabia developing the bomb – Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia be Next? Kahl, Dalton and Irvine argue quite persuasively that a number of factors will keep Saudi Arabia from developing the bomb. But one of the big caveats to this is a credible U.S. security commitment to Saudi Arabia. Does the Royal Family in Riyadh feel comfortable about this commitment given the competing narrative that America may have an opportunity to walk away from the Persian Gulf if it doesn’t need access to the region’s oil?
The public perception on these issues - at home and abroad - will have to be managed carefully. What a tightrope to walk.
Photo: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army General Martin E. Dempsey talks with Sailors on the USS John C. Stennis Aircraft Carrier in the Persian Gulf on Dec. 13, 2012. Courtesy of D. Myles Cullen and the Department of Defense.