Sunday, March 24, 2019

The Russians are coming (and they're bringing oil)

As America's Russia hysteria is stirred once again by the arrival of the long-awaited report of the U.S. Department of Justice on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, a surge in Russian oil imports has arrived on America's shores.

The surge was little noticed by what passes for the U.S. foreign policy apparatus these days which has now become obsessed with toppling the current regime in Venezuela—a regime unloved by American oil interests who saw their property expropriated by the Venezuelan government.

By effectively preventing the national Venezuelan oil company from getting paid for its cargoes to the United States, the U.S. government has forced Venezuela, previously a major source of imported oil, to seek other customers for its mostly heavy crude.

But the loss of Venezuela as a major U.S. oil supplier has opened up room for other exporters, most notably Russia. Russian oil has never been subject to the economic sanctions arranged by the United States against the country. The arrival of increasing amounts of Russian crude at America's ports belies the notion so frequently trumpeted by a chorus of fawning admirers of America's get-tough foreign policy that the U.S. can now use its rising oil dominance to advance its geopolitical goals.

Here's what's wrong with that story. First, the United States remains a substantial importer of petroleum products, both on a gross and a net basis. Yes, the country does export a large amount of the light oil produced from the shale deposits in Texas and elsewhere because American refineries cannot use all of it. Those refineries are generally designed to mix light and heavy crudes for optimal output. But, this means the United States must import a significant amount of heavy crude. America remains wildly dependent on world oil to keep its voracious refining industry in operation.

In addition, the official net import numbers are deceiving because they include liquids that come from natural gas wells called natural gas liquids. Once those are netted out and removed from the calculations, America's net imports of petroleum products rise from about 1.5 million barrels per day (mbpd) to about 2.4 mbpd. That's far lower than in the past, but it does not spell energy independence. The country remains dependent on the world market and must pay world prices.

That dependence is likely to increase over the long term. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that U.S. crude oil production (defined as crude oil and lease condensate) will peak in the mid-2020s and then decline slowly through 2050.

Given that almost all the rise in production and sustained output is expected to come from deep shale deposits—which the industry as a whole has lost money on every year—it's hard to see how the EIA forecast can be realized. To quote economist Herbert Stein, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." A more realistic forecast shows a dramatic decline in U.S. crude oil production between the 2020s and 2050.

The Russians would be laughing themselves silly that America is becoming more dependent on Russian oil if it weren't for the fact that Russian production is forecast to peak and decline during the same period.

And, that is the broader story. The world's top oil producers are unlikely to meet world demand for oil and oil products in the near future. When things look great, that's when the peak occurs. But because supplies seem overflowing now and because the people in the industry keep saying it will stay that way—What would you expect them to say to their investors and to the public?—few people can contemplate our real situation. Strangely, even those who mistrust the oil industry on practically every other issue choose to trust the industry when it comes to oil supply forecasts.

Russian imports coming to our shores in increasing amounts should be setting off alarm bells, not about Russia itself, but about our energy future—both the supplies of oil we will actually have and the new infrastructure we'll need to live with less of it. Instead, the Russian trend hardly creates a ripple in the public discourse as U.S. leaders seek revenge on Venezuela, a country that took away assets from an industry that has long been a very large contributor to political campaigns. Does anyone believe the United States would concern itself with internal Venezuelan politics if the country did not have very large oil reserves?

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at

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