If Donald Trump wanted to shield U.S. shale from oil’s crash, he could unleash a familiar weapon against rival producers such as Saudi Arabia: tariffs.
The U.S. president’s trade war with China that spawned tit-for-tat levies has shown his administration is willing to break with precedent to combat economic adversaries. Now, with Harold Hamm—a shale industry titan and Trump confidant—seeking to file a complaint against the Saudi plan to flood the market, the White House could take action.
While it’s highly unlikely that any action on the tariff front against Saudi Arabia would succeed or even work, that doesn’t mean that Trump won’t give it a go, said energy consultant Phil Verleger. “This administration has shown that it can defy economics and the law and get away with it,” he said in an interview.
The Energy Department on Monday decried “attempts by state actors to manipulate and shock oil markets” as crude crashed by the most since 1991 after Saudi Arabia and Russia pledged to boost output. The price plunge and producer war for market share has battered the U.S. shale industry—which Trump has touted as key to American energy independence.
To be sure, it’s far from certain if Trump will impose tariffs or if protecting the shale industry is at the top of his current priorities. U.S. equities have sunk into a bear market, and the administration has yet to detail any stimulus measures to combat the economic fallout from the spreading coronavirus.
Not all of the energy sector wants the government to intervene. The American Petroleum Institute doesn’t support any policy measures that address the current market disruption, according to Frank Macchiarola, the industry group’s senior vice president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs.
Representatives of API and other oil companies met with Trump officials at the White House Wednesday, according to two people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named discussing a private session. They did not ask for any aid, one of them said.
“After crowing for 10 years about the shale miracle, it’s going to be pretty hard to go begging hat in hand for a bailout,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican financier and chief executive of drilling services company Canary LLC. “Shale’s on its own, I fear. We’ll have to weather through best we can with mergers and acquisitions.”
Any potential move would also face political hurdles. As the White House considers targeted relief for the battered oil sector, congressional Democrats, including Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, pushed back Wednesday. There’s worry that “the president will pay attention to the special interests instead of the people,” Schumer said.
Hamm, the founder of Continental Resources Inc., has different ideas. The company’s stock has slumped 74% this year, pummeling his fortune. Hamm’s net worth has tumbled to $2.9 billion from more than $10 billion at the start of the year, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
He’s leading an oil producer group to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Commerce against Saudi Arabia for “illegal” dumping of crude.
“If they’re found guilty of dumping as we believe now they obviously are, if they’re found guilty of that, there could be countervailing duty to place upon all their imports to this country,” Hamm said. “That would be a drastic good measure that should be done.”
The U.S. Commerce Department couldn’t immediately comment.
Experts see little chance of success for Hamm against Saudi Arabia. Since oil is a globally traded commodity, it would be difficult to make the case for price discrimination, and show that the kingdom is selling at a lower cost in the U.S. than elsewhere. Equally contentious would be the argument that the Saudis are selling below cost, since the nation has some of the cheapest production costs in the world.
While most oil industry-targeted aid would require action from Congress, the administration is considering one move that it can take independently: lowering royalties for oil and gas extracted from federal land. Another possibility would be the same option that enabled Trump to impose steel tariffs, said Robert Litan, who held senior posts in the Clinton administration.
Under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act, the administration can apply duties without a vote by Congress if imports are deemed a national-security threat. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross—who unsuccessfully tried to revive an oil and gas driller before joining Trump’s cabinet—has justified Section’s 232’s use previously for placing tariffs on metal shipments.
But such a move would take time to impose and requires lawyers to compile a lengthy report.
“That might be a hard case to make when imports have dwindled in recent years, but logic and the law may not prevail here,” said Litan, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.