When President Obama opened the coastline to offshore oil drilling, nearly every aspect of the plan came under heated debate. The only thing everyone agrees on, it seems, is the need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Statements from the Environmental Protection Agency to automakers to T. Boone Pickens to Obama himself, whether supporting or condemning offshore drilling, all cite the dangers of relying on foreign energy. It's not hard to see why. Shipping oil from halfway around the world is environmentally costly, economically inefficient, and lands us in bed with some of the world's least democratic regimes. But our ties to these states might not be categorically terrible things for us, as they're often assumed to be. Hidden unexamined among the many downsides of our dependence on foreign oil is an upside: It gives us leverage over the countries that sell us oil.
The top ten oil exporters to the U.S., which account for half of all U.S. consumption, read like a State Department tourism warning list: Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Iraq, Angola, Russia, Colombia, and Brazil. (To be fair, Canada has long been our number one oil source, and Mexico alternates with Saudi Arabia for the number two spot.) But keep in mind that most of these countries need our money a lot more then we need their oil. If Saudi Arabia and the U.S. suddenly ended our trade tomorrow, for example, the U.S. and global economies would not suffer nearly as much as Saudi Arabia's. The Saudis understand this and so want to keep U.S. and Saudi interests aligned.