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August 14, 2019

The US Should NOT Lead the Effort to Protect the Straits of Hormuz

Thanks to fracking, we don’t have to.

Back in 1987 (Ronald Reagan was President) the US was dependent on Mideast oil shipped through the Straits of Hormuz. Iran threatened shipping through the Straits, as it is doing today. The motive then was to force oil shippers like Saudi Arabia and oil importers like the US to support Iran in its war with Iraq. In order to protect our oil supply, the US allowed Kuwaiti oil tankers to “reflag” as American so the US Navy could protect them.

In April of 1988, the USS Samuel B. Roberts hit a mine while on escort duty. She nearly sank although there was no loss of life. The US gathered evidence that the mine was Iranian. On April 18th the US navy attacked the Iranian navy and offshore oil platforms. According to Wikipedia: “By the end of the operation, American Marines, ships and aircraft had destroyed Iranian naval and intelligence facilities on two inoperable oil platforms in the Persian Gulf, and sank at least three armed Iranian speedboats, one Iranian frigate and one fast attack gunboat. One other Iranian frigate was damaged in the battle.” The Iranian attacks on shipping stopped. The US oil supply - and that of Europe, China, Australia, and Japan – was secure.

That was then; this is now. Some things haven’t changed. The Iranians are once again threatening and actually attacking ships sailing through Hormuz. Saudi Arabia and Iraq need to sell the oil that passes through the Straits. Europe, China, Japan, and Australia still need that oil. The US is leading the effort to protect shipping.

But one thing has changed. The US is nearly self-sufficient in oil thanks to the technological advances of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. We don’t need the oil that comes through the Gulf.

No one is following the US-led effort to patrol the Straits except the UK and Australia. Germany and France have openly declined to participate. So why are we leading an effort which is not supported by most of its beneficiaries? Why don’t we just limit our protection to American ships (no reflagging this time) and let those who need to sell the oil and those who need to buy it protect their own supply line? It’s uncharacteristic of President Trump to put the rest of the world first or allow other nations to free-ride; but that’s what he seems to be doing. He may be afraid that Iran will blackmail oil-starved nations into supporting Iran against the US. He may not want the world price of oil to increase (as it will if the Straits are closed) with an election coming up. But I think he’s wrong to make us the leader of the protection effort.

We now produce enough oil and natural gas to share it (at a price) with our allies. We might better stiffen their backbones by building more port facilities and pipelines to our coast so we can export more relatively low-priced American fuel.  We are considering letting Australia buy from our strategic oil reserve. Shipping more US liquified natural gas (LNG) to Europe also helps Europe reduce its dangerous dependency on Russia’s Gazprom. Taking market share from Saudi Arabia would not only be good for the US economy, it will also reduce the money flow from that kingdom to Islamic militants.

This discussion should not be confused with the issue of how quickly the world reduces the use of fossil fuels. The question is do we risk American lives and spend American money to help the Gulf states export oil to the world when energy independence has given us a choice. I think the answer is “no”.

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