Stock Saudi oil Aramco refinery
Drop to zero... It is the first time in over three decades that not a single barrel of Saudi oil reached US refiners on a weekly basis. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Washington: The US didn't import any Saudi crude last week for the first time in 35 years, a reversal from just months ago when the Kingdom threatened to upend the American energy industry by unleashing a tsunami of exports into a market decimated by the pandemic.

Eliminating the reliance on Middle East oil has been the dream of every US Administration since the presidency of Jimmy Carter in 1977. Just 12 years ago, when Joe Biden became US Vice-President, American refiners were routinely importing about 1 million barrels a day of crude from Saudi Arabia, the second-largest supplier to the US after Canada.

Just three presidential terms later, that flow has fallen to zero. It is the most visual manifestation of how little America now relies on Middle East oil, after shaping its foreign policy for decades around its need for crude. 

Slow build up to zero

The lack of deliveries follows a slump in crude shipments to the US that left the kingdom in recent months. Since tankers from Saudi Arabia take about six weeks to reach import terminals on either the west or Gulf coasts, the drop is only starting to show up now.

This is the first week America had no deliveries based on available weekly data through June 2010 from the US Energy Information Administration. A longer history of monthly figures shows this is the first time there were no Saudi imports since September 1985.

It's also proving a fairly good week for oil, with futures heading the $50 a barrel mark. Image Credit: Reuters

Its own way

Earlier this week, OPEC and its allies reviewed their production plans, allowing small increases for Russia and Kazakhstan in February and March, with the rest keeping production unchanged. Then Saudi Arabia surprised even its fellow producers by announcing a unilateral cut to its own production of a further 1 million barrels over the next two months.

The OPEC leader's decision caused global benchmark Brent oil futures prices to surge beyond $54 a barrel and its US counterpart, West Texas Intermediate crude, to break through $50.

The supply cuts which date back to a producer agreement last year, have helped shore up crude prices, even as fuel consumption struggles to return to pre-pandemic levels. In the past month, oil prices have risen on hopes that demand could improve as a number of vaccines are starting to be administered to combat the health crisis.

Still caught up

But America is still in the throes of the pandemic, with record infections in many states forcing new restrictions, while some other parts of the world are recovering. US gasoline consumption plunged to the lowest in years during the usual high-demand Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday periods.

The demand loss is so acute some US refineries have been idled. "Throughput is still below where it was before the crisis because of reduced domestic demand. So why send more here when Asia is where recovery has been clear," said Sandy Fielden, director of oil and products research at Morningstar Inc.

For Saudi Arabia, cutting shipments to the US is the quickest way to signal to the wider market that it's tightening supply. The government is alone in publishing weekly data on crude stockpiles and imports, which carry enormous influence among oil traders. Other big petroleum consuming nations, like China, publish less timely information about oil supplies.

Peak summer

In May and June, Saudi deliveries to the US more than doubled from a year ago in the aftermath of a bitter price war with Russia. American refiners received the final installment of that bumper load in early July.

Since then, Saudi oil shipments to the US have steadily declined. In November and then again in December, they delivered only 73,000 barrels a day to customers, preliminary U.S. Energy Information Administration data show.

In the short term, the election of Joe Biden could benefit Saudi Arabia. While transitioning away from hydrocarbons would have a long-term impact on oil demand, hopes to revive the 2015-Iranian nuclear deal would pave the way for more Iranian oil to flow globally. "Those sales will displace Saudi oil and that would mean Arabia would have to turn to the US to maintain sales," said Andy Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates LLC in Houston.