Drone Attacks On Saudi Arabia Oil Plants Hit World's Energy Supply, U.S. Says

Sep 16, 2019
Originally published on September 16, 2019 7:14 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump says the United States is, quote, "locked and loaded." What he means by that is one of the many questions after an attack over the weekend on Saudi Arabia's oil reserves. Drones hit a major Saudi oil facility, knocking out more than half the Saudi oil supply and sending global oil prices surging.

Yemeni rebels have claimed responsibility here, but the Trump administration is blaming Iran. And the president, as we mentioned, said that he is threatening some kind of action, though we don't know what he means. Let's turn now to NPR's Peter Kenyon, who is following all of this from Istanbul.

Peter, good morning.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: Let's talk about what exactly happened here at this facility. And where exactly is it?

KENYON: Well, it's a facility called Abqaiq. It's a very large oil processing site, some describe it as the world's largest such facility. And it was attacked Saturday. A second facility was also attacked. The Saudi production remains, you know, vitally important to world oil supplies. And experts say, while this could have been worse, it did do significant damage. It disrupted probably 5.7 million barrels a day. And as you said, that's well over half the Saudi daily output.

Now, there have been improvements in oil production elsewhere outside the Middle East, including in America. But this kind of attack in this very volatile region is still a significant threat to world oil supplies. And we saw that again over the weekend.

GREENE: Talk more about the threat because obviously oil supplies is something we all think about when we think about prices at the pumps and other ways that this affect our lives. I mean, how long could there be an impact? And how big a disruption could this be?

KENYON: Right. This is not being described as a long-term disruption, that's the first thing to say. But it does highlight worrying vulnerabilities in these major oil facilities that the suppliers depend on. Saudi Arabia has reserves in hand. It says it can cover some of this shortfall by tapping into its reserves. There was a similar comment from Washington, raising the possibility of the U.S. strategic reserves being used if necessary.

But the Saudis say it will take weeks to repair their damaged facilities. It's not hard to see how this could have been a lot worse. It could have been a much bigger attack. It could have caused a major disruption for a much longer time and pose a serious threat to the world economy - obviously still very dependent on crude oil.

GREENE: Let's turn now to the players in the region. You've got the Houthi rebels, who are fighting in this conflict in Yemen, saying they were responsible for this attack in Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration is basically saying, no, we don't believe you. Iran is behind it.

Help us understand this, if you can.

KENYON: Right. Well, to get into the Yemen situation very briefly - you have, on one side, a Saudi-led coalition that's supported by the U.S. And fighting them are these Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran. And this has been going on for some time. The Houthis have launched a number of attacks inside Saudi Arabia before this.

But Washington said this one was too big, too sophisticated. They don't believe it was carried out by the Houthis. They blame Iran. They say there's photographs, intelligence estimates that the U.S. says implicate Tehran.

President Trump responded with a tweet that the U.S. is, quote, "locked and loaded," prepared to hold Iran accountable for what some are calling the worst disruption to world oil supplies on record. Trump says he's waiting for now for confirmation from Riyadh that Iran was actually behind this attack and waiting for a decision on how to proceed. That's how he put it.

GREENE: All right. And we should say, we have the British government - the British government saying this morning that they - this attack was outrageous, but they, too, want to collect facts before they come to some sort of judgment.

What about Iran, Peter? Obviously, this has been a time of tensions between the United States and Iran. How is Iran responding to these charges from the United States?

KENYON: Well, they're just flat-out denying any involvement. The Foreign Ministry in Tehran is using the phrase maximum lies to discuss these accusations. That appears to be a reference to Trump's maximum pressure campaign against Iran.

The ministry - a spokesman at the Foreign Ministry there also says one result of this is there's now no chance that President Rouhani is going to be meeting with President Trump later this month at the U.N. General Assembly. That meeting was far from certain anyway. Iran had been demanding American sanctions be lifted before the two sat down, and that wasn't happening.

But now Iran's just ruling out the meeting completely. So what we're seeing is, despite the departure of the Iran hawk John Bolton from - as Trump's national security adviser, that had some people thinking U.S.-Iran ties might move away from confrontation. But what we're seeing now, tensions on the rise again. The room for diplomacy to prevent a further escalation, that seems to be shrinking.

And meanwhile, the Houthis are still at it in Yemen. They're saying Saudi facilities are still a target.

GREENE: All right. We'll be continuing to watch the impact of those strikes in Saudi Arabia - both a possible escalation in the region and as oil prices, we say, are already surging. NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul for us this morning. Peter, thanks.

KENYON: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.