When the pump runs dry

Under international pressure over its nuclear ambitions, Iran is now threatening to take pre-emptive action, which could include disrupting oil supplies to the West. It will come as a shock to most Americans, but no presidential candidate — nor, apparently, any agency at the local, state or federal level — has developed a contingency plan in the event of a protracted oil cut-off. It is not even being discussed. Government has prepared for hurricanes, anthrax, terrorism and every other disaster, but not the one threatened daily: a protracted oil stoppage, whether caused by terrorism or Iranian intervention in the Persian Gulf. It is like seeing a hurricane developing without a disaster plan or evacuation route. Our allies have oil shortage interruption contingency plans, but America does not.

The crude realities: America uses approximately 19 million to 20 million barrels of oil per day, almost half of which is imported. If we lose just 1 million barrels per day, or suffer the type of damage sustained from Hurricane Katrina, the government will open the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which offers a mere six- to eight-week supply of unrefined crude oil. If we lose 1.5 million barrels per day, or approximately 7.5 percent, we will ask our allies in the 28-member International Energy Agency to open their SPRs and otherwise assist. If we lose 2 million barrels per day, or 10 percent, for a protracted period, government crisis monitors say the chaos will be so catastrophic, they cannot even model it. One government oil crisis source told me: "We cannot put a price tag on it. If it happens, just cash in your 401(k)."

Exactly how could America be subjected to a protracted oil interruption — that is, a 10 percent shortfall lasting longer than several weeks? It will not come from hurricane action in the Gulf of Mexico, or even major refinery accidents or other oil infrastructure damage. Such damage would be repaired within days and the temporary losses absorbed by the small, half-million-barrel-per-day global cushion available.

But a disruption of the vital Persian Gulf chokepoints — the Abqaiq processing plant in eastern Saudi Arabia, the Ras Tanura terminal on the Saudi Arabian coast, or the two-mile-wide sea lane of the Strait of Hormuz — would be devastating. If one, two or three of them is hit by terrorists flying hijacked jumbo jets or shut down by Iranian military action, as much as 40 percent of all seaborne oil will be stopped, as much as 18 percent of all global supply will be interrupted, and more than 10 percent of the U.S. supply will be cut off. Estimates on the U.S. shortfall suggest the percentage lost could be far higher. Repeat attacks, and the difficulty of anti-mine operations in a hostile environment, could prolong the crisis for many months — which is exactly what al-Qaeda and the Iranian regime have promised. Yet, apparently, there is no government plan.

The best experts predict that if we suffer as much as a 10 percent shortfall for any period of time, let alone 20 percent, it will be a neighbor-against-neighbor, "Mad Max" scenario as food shortages swell and a storm of economic collapse surges across the country. Indeed, experts have been warning about this looming calamity for years. But the government and presidential candidates refuse to even consider the possibility or develop a contingency plan. Even if a secret plan exists, who would execute such a monumental undertaking?

Yet American allies have developed oil contingency legislation and other administrative plans that will permit their nations to survive a stoppage. These measures include severe vehicle traffic reductions, enabling fast alternative fuel production and mass vehicle fuel retrofitting, as well as rush public transit enhancement and mandated changes in driving habits. Unquestionably, for America to survive such a catastrophe would require a very painful, multi-layered program of immediate-term, short-term, mid-term and long-term fixes that would change our society and transform it off of dependency on oil. Currently, the nation has no real alternative fuel delivery or retrofitting infrastructure. Lawmakers, mayors, governors and candidates have not developed such a plan during the half decade the interruption has been looming.

The notion that Saudi Arabia can make up the shortfall from an Iranian disruption is impossible. Saudi oil too must pass through the narrow sea lanes of the Strait. The trans-Arabian Petroline that terminates at Yanbu can carry only a few million barrels per day, and a rush project to double its capacity would require an estimated $600 million and some two years of construction and chemical changes; this presupposes Iran would not simply attack the line with a barrage of medium range missiles from its Red Sea forward ports.

For America to have prepared intelligently for a Persian Gulf oil interruption would have required a decade of planning. To absorb the hit from a sudden oil stoppage, as is now once again threatened, will be very painful indeed.


Edwin Black, a Maryland resident and a New York Times bestselling writer, is the author of several books, including "The Plan: How to Save America When the Oil Stops — or the Day Before" (Dialog Press), from which this article is adapted. More information about "The Plan" can be found at