14/11/2017 08:45 AST

For a generation, the huge, whitewashed storage tanks at America’s largest oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, have stored almost nothing but Saudi crude.

The plant is owned the Saudi Arabia’s state-run oil company, Aramco, and since it first bought a stake in 1988, the Motiva refinery guaranteed the kingdom a strategic foothold in the world’s largest energy market. The tankers carrying millions of barrels a month of Arab Light crude from the Saudi export terminals to Port Arthur were testament to the strength of the energy and political ties binding Riyadh and Washington.

All of a sudden, there are very few Saudi ships arriving in Texas. Since July, Aramco has constricted supply, attempting to drain the crude storage tanks at Motiva -- and many others across America -- part of a plan to lift oil prices, even at the cost of sacrificing its once prized U.S.

While Motiva is most affected, the rest of the U.S. oil refining system, from El Segundo in California to Lake Lake Charles in Louisiana, has also taken a hit. The result: Saudi crude exports into America fell to a 30-year low last month.

"The drop is huge," said Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst at consultant Energy Aspects Ltd. in London. "It’s not just that Saudi exports are low, but they have been low for several months.”

At a stroke, the freedom from Saudi oil that’s been a rhetorical aspiration for generations of American politicians, from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush, is within reach -- even if it’s largely the choice of supplier rather than the customer.

The U.S. imported just 525,000 barrels a day of Saudi crude in October, the lowest since May 1987 and down from 1.5 million barrels a day a decade ago, according to Bloomberg News calculations based on custom data.

The export drop was part of a wider undertaking by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to fight a global glut that has weighed on oil prices. OPEC and its non-OPEC allies including Russia are scheduled to meet later this month to discuss prolonging the cuts through 2018.

Saudi Arabia, which for decades fought hard to be the second-largest oil supplier to the U.S. after Canada, last month dropped to fourth position for the first time since at least 1990, falling behind Iraq and Mexico.

The drop in supplies has been so dramatic that Motiva bought in July almost exactly the same amount of crude from Saudi Arabia (4.01 million barrels) as it did from Iraq (3.96 million), according to custom data. Saudi crude that month accounted for just 36 percent of Motiva’s imports, down from a typical 70-90 percent in the past.In August, the most recent monthly data available at company level, Saudi crude accounted for less than half of Motiva’s imports.

The combination of falling Saudi oil exports into the U.S. last year, cheap crude and higher exports of American weapons had already turned upside-down the trade relationship between the two countries. Last year, the U.S. enjoyed its first trade surplus with Saudi Arabia since 1998 -- only the third in 30 years, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The sharper cuts in oil exports since the summer will likely amplify that trend.

As Saudi supplies fell, U.S. crude inventories dropped sharply over the summer and autumn to their lowest since January 2016. Oil prices have followed and Brent, the global benchmark, traded at a two-year high above $60 a barrel this month.

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Bloomberg

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