Save the U.S. Oil Industry

Saudi market gaming is harming U.S. firms—but there’s a way to stop it and profit.
March 13, 2020
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(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

On March 9, Saudi Arabia started dumping oil on the world market at a price of $30 per barrel. This crashed the global price of oil, sending oil industry stock values through the floor: ExxonMobil and Chevron have both dropped about 20 percent on the NYSE since last Friday, while Phillips 66 and Valero have both fallen over 30 percent. Leading frackers, such as Whiting and Noble Energy, have fallen about 50 percent. The drop in oil stocks has added to the precipitous stock-market tumble provoked by the global coronavirus pandemic.

The Saudi campaign was reportedly initiated for the purpose of forcing Russia to follow the dictates of the OPEC oil cartel. That result would not be in America’s interests. But what is of even greater concern is that the Saudi action threatens to bankrupt the American oil industry, and practically all other free-world oil producers as well. Once that is done, the personnel of these companies will scatter to the four winds.

Oil companies are complex organisms, with many specialists. Imagine trying to restart the U.S. Navy if an unwise administration decided to dismiss all its personnel, including the officers, sailors, engineers, gunners, pilots, flight mechanics, shipyard workers, and supply-system administrators. Even if the ships were preserved intact, it would take years before the Navy became functional again. The same would be true of the U.S. oil industry if its firms were forced out of business.

Under such circumstances, the Saudis would be able to reverse course, and constrict the oil supply at will, sending prices to $150 per barrel, or more. This will allow them to loot the world, while sending the global economy into a deep recession, much as happened in 2008.

Low oil prices are good for consumers. And during a crisis, like the coronavirus pandemic, we should be glad that prices at the pump aren’t spiking. But it’s important also to keep a longer view: It would be a gross mistake to celebrate $1/gallon gasoline prices for a few months at the cost of $10/gallon gasoline prices for years.

Swift and forceful action is required. Even if its chief intended target is Russia, the Saudi move is an act of economic warfare against the United States, and extreme actions, including blockade, would be justified. But there is a much more effective and less risky course of action that we could take.

Here is what we do: So long as the Saudis choose to dump their oil at $30 per barrel, the U.S. government should buy all they produce at the point of sale, before it hits the world market, and add it to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Taking Saudi oil off the world market will send prices back up, saving free-world oil producers. As soon as oil hits $60 per barrel, the United States can start selling from the reserve, stabilizing oil prices there. For as long as the Saudis keep playing this game, Americans will net a profit of $30 per barrel—which comes to about $9 billion per month.

The money to finance this could all come from Uncle Sam, in which case taxpayers will be the sole beneficiaries. Alternatively, opportunity to participate in the transaction could be opened to private investors. Either way, we win and the Saudis lose.

We can prevail. But there is no time to lose.

Robert Zubrin

Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer, is the founder of the Mars Society and the president of Pioneer Astronautics. His latest book, The Case for Space: How the Revolution in Spaceflight Opens Up a Future of Limitless Possibility, was recently published by Prometheus Books. Twitter: @robert_zubrin.