Rise in Saudi Oil Imports Exposes the Lie of North American Oil Independence
For some time now we have been told that the ongoing North American oil boom will end U.S. reliance on Middle Eastern oil and change America’s foreign policy dynamic with regards to ‘hostile’ oil producers. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The latest petroleum statistics from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) show that in the past year, while U.S. oil production surged at unprecedented rates, imports from Saudi Arabia, (you know, that country that we’re supposed to be less dependent on) have in fact risen.
And the fact that this has happened while overall imports have declined only serves to further demonstrate what a load of nonsense the oil independence rhetoric really is.
Yes, America’s importing less oil but is it any less dependent on what goes on in the Middle East? Not a bit.
This is what’s been going on.
Saudi Arabia has been increasing supply throughout 2012 hitting record levels of 10.1 million barrels per day in May. This is part of the country’s commitment to ease the effect on global oil markets of sanctions against its arch enemy, Iran. It has been the country’s stated intention to bring prices down towards $100 a barrel. This seems to have worked as on June 1 Brent crude dropped below $100 for the first time since Feb. 2011, although the ongoing economic crisis in the Eurozone clearly also plays a role.
Part of the Saudi import rise is also attributed to the (at that time) imminent opening of Motiva’s massive refinery expansion at Port Arthur, Texas. Motiva is a joint venture between Shell and Saudi Aramco, the Saudi national oil company. The expansion raises the refinery’s capacity to 600,000 b/d making it the biggest in America. The official opening was May 31. Naturally, Saudi Aramco wants to process some Saudi oil at its flagship foreign refinery.
But according to the EIA, other refineries have been soaking up the extra Saudi supply as well. Naturally, the same companies who tell us that one of the great virtues of increased North American supply is reduced dependence on Middle East oil show little loyalty to North American suppliers when they are offered a cheap tanker load or two. And why should they? Business is business, after all.
All of this makes for some sober reading for the champions of so called North American oil independence. Because while U.S. production climbed in this period a hefty 600,000 b/d, reaching levels not seen since 1998, the unattainable goal of ‘independence’ from the Saudi bogeyman became less, well, attainable.
Saudi Arabia remains the most powerful force in the global oil market and booming North American production has done nothing to change that. North American oil producers will never maintain spare capacity that can be used to address supply disruptions (unless we nationalize them, now there’s a thought) and Saudi Arabia has shown that it has the ability to both maintain a supply cushion and increase its capacity in a relatively short time.
Further, Saudi Arabia owns a 50 percent share in nearly 1 million b/d of refining capacity in the U.S. Unless that changes there will always be imports from Saudi Arabia even if North American oil independence ever did become a reality, which is unlikely.
While America remains the consumer of some 20 percent of the world’s oil, it doesn’t matter how much oil is produced in America, Canada or any other ‘friendly’ country .This country will always remain vulnerable to the volatile oil market. It will therefore always maintain an interest in securing oil supply corridors in the Middle East and elsewhere.
And while America continues to consume that 20 percent of global oil production, it will also continue to fail to play its role in heading off a climate disaster. Meeting that demand today means digging ever deeper and dirtier for oil, using more energy to get at those barrels and relentlessly expanding the global pool of carbon available to burn. The current North American oil boom is entirely founded on extraction that is more energy intensive and more polluting. It is tar sands, fracked oil, ultra deepwater, the Arctic, and if the industry gets its way, the oil shale (kerogen) in the Rocky Mountains could take the prize for extreme and destructive production.
So we need to take this moment to step back and think about what we are being sold. A fantasy of energy independence that even if it were attainable would come at a terrific cost in pollution, community disruption and climate change.
The only way to beat Saudi Arabia—if that really were one of the goals of the relentless push into extreme oil—is to cut demand. It is clearly possible to cut U.S. demand for oil around 50 percent in the next 20 years, and that would surely make a bigger impact on our energy independence than any feasible increase in supply ever could.
But freedom from the Saudi influence on the global oil market is not the goal. Profit is. And because of the enormous profits at stake and the corrupt and dysfunctional system of campaign finance in America, it is not yet politically feasible to make those oil demand cuts.
As the millions pouring into the political process from the oil industry makes only too clear.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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