Administration’s Drastic Drawdown of Strategic Petroleum Reserve Makes Us Vulnerable to Actual Oil Supply Shock

Although fracking technology has enabled renewed oil production in the U.S., the West remains heavily dependent on oil imports, especially from the Middle East. Even in the U.S., the current refining capacity is not well-matched to the type of light oil produced by fracking, so we still import oil (of types that our refineries can handle), although we also export fracked oil. Since oil remains the basis of so much economic activity, and since many oil exporting countries are unstable or even hostile to the U.S and our allies, the U.S. in 1975 established a large Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) to store up crude oil. The storage is mainly in caverns in Texas and Louisiana, dissolved out of underground salt deposits. It was mainly filled in the Reagan/Bush administrations in the late 1970’s, and topped up under Bush II around 2003-2004.

The statutory purpose of this stockpile is to protect us and our allies against a “a significant reduction in supply which is of significant scope and duration,” per the Department of Energy. If such an event occurs, leading to high prices and associated economic impact, the President is authorized to release oil from the SPR. However,

In no case may the Reserve be drawn down…

 (A) in excess of an aggregate of 30,000,000 barrels with respect to each such shortage;

(B) for more than 60 days with respect to each such shortage;

Somehow various administrations and also Congress have circumvented these restrictions on draining the SPR, and over the years have sold off bits and pieces to raise money for government spending. However, the current administration has decimated the SPR, selling off a third of it (some 200 million barrels), mostly in the past six months:

Source: U.S. EIA

The administration projects this gusher to stop after November. Essentially all objective observers recognize this as primarily a political move, to reduce gasoline prices in order to curry favor with voters for the mid-term elections this November. It’s one thing to knock the price of gasoline down from $5.00/gallon back in the spring, when the world was panicked about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but to keep on selling into a moderated market is irresponsible. We haven’t had an actual shortfall in supply these past few months. Among other things, Russia keeps happily pumping and selling, out into the global grey market.

I won’t belabor the point here (stay tuned for more posts on this subject), but the world is structurally short of oil. With this administration having spent its first year demonizing oil and oil companies, the petroleum industry is understandably cautious about making expensive investments in future oil production. They know they will be stabbed in the back as soon as the current party in power no longer needs them.

By dumping this oil now, the administration is making the U.S. and the West more vulnerable later, if there is an actual global oil supply crisis (think: Iran vs. Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf…). Irritated by the lowish oil prices engendered by the SPR release, OPEC just announced production cuts which will drive prices right back up. They can cut production far longer than we can drain the SPR. If this all motivates further investment in low CO2 energy (including nuclear), that is perhaps a good thing. But between now, and attaining a carbon-free utopia in the future, we need to keep the crude flowing. Let us hope for the best here.

Energy analyst Robert Rapier writes:

Ultimately, drawing down the SPR was a political decision. Think about it. An administration that has frequently emphasized the importance of reducing carbon emissions is trying to increase oil supplies to bring down rising oil prices — which will in turn help keep demand (and carbon emissions) high.

But even though the Biden Administration wants to address rising carbon emissions, high gasoline prices cause incumbents to lose elections. So, they try to tame gasoline prices even though it contradicts one of their key objectives of reducing carbon emissions.

The SPR has now been depleted since President Biden took office from 640 million barrels to 450 million barrels…

President Biden’s gamble to deplete the SPR in order to fight high oil prices may not hurt him at all. Of course, if for some reason we had a true supply emergency and found ourselves needing that oil, it would be looked upon as a terrible decision.

The Congress That Berated Oil Companies for Producing Oil Is Now Berating Them for Not Producing Oil

Oil production is a difficult, risky business even under favorable regulatory regimes.  For instance, here is a chart of cumulative bankruptcy filings of exploration and production (E&P) companies for 2015-2021:

A few companies go bust every year, but there are some years like 2015-2016 and 2019-2020 when a lot of companies go bust. That happens when the oil industry collectively has overproduced and driven the price of oil below the effective cost of production. Even the mighty ExxonMobil ran deep in the red in 2020, losing an eye-watering 22.4 billion dollars. With all that in mind, shareholders since 2020 have been pressuring companies to show “financial discipline”, which means “drill less”.

Beyond these basic business realities, there is a whole new set of pressures to inhibit petroleum production. Environmental activists have pushed banks to withhold funding from petroleum companies, to strangle further oil production. It was big news in 2020 when activists, alarmed by ExxonMobil’s plans to actually (gasp) increase its oil production, successfully elected several alternative members to the board of directors with the specific goal of curtailing further drilling.

There have been attacks on the oil industry on the political front, as well. Joe Biden ran on a platform of banning drilling on public lands, and one item he checked off his to-do list on his first day in office was to issue an executive order killing a pipeline that would have facilitated imports of oil from the abundant reserves in Canada. One of his nominees for a top financial regulatory post remarked regarding oil producers that “we want them to go bankrupt if we want to tackle climate change”. All these are the sorts of things that make execs less willing to commit capital for expensive drilling programs that may take years to pay back. (The counter-claim by the administration that the U.S. oil industry is just sitting on thousands of unused oil leases is a red herring).

There is only a finite amount of oil in the ground, so it makes sense to move with all deliberate speed toward renewable and nuclear energy (which emits little or no CO2). However, our European friends who have installed lots of solar panels and windmills have discovered  that the sun does not shine at night (!) and the wind does not always blow strongly (!!) , and so during their energy transition they need to maintain an adequate supply of fossil fuel power in order to keep the lights on. They elected to let their own oil and gas production dwindle, and rely instead on gas and oil purchased from Russia. We warned back in September that this European policy would give Russia leverage for harassing Ukraine, but apparently not enough EU leaders read this blog. Anyway, even back in the fall of 2021, Russia had restricted natural gas deliveries to Europe, causing sky-high prices there for gas and power.

The European experience ought to have been a cautionary tale for America, but political attacks on oil production continued in the halls of Congress itself. In an October 2021 hearing over climate change prevention, Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Ro Khanna (D-CA) insisted that Big Oil commit to reducing US oil and gas production by 3-4% annually (50-70% total by 2050). In a follow-up February 8, 2022 hearing,  the two legislators again demanded concrete commitments from oil companies to reduce their domestic production (although, strangely, Mr. Khanna supported President Biden’s call for other regions, such as OPEC and Russia to increase production).

With oil drilling having been curtailed for the past several years (as desired by environmentalists), the world has now flopped from an oil surplus to an oil shortage, exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions. And of course world oil prices (which are not under the control of U.S. companies) have gone up in response. Oil companies are actually making money again instead of going bankrupt like two years ago

In 2021 Apple had a 26% net profit margin and an effective tax rate of only 13%, while the oil industry had an average profit margin of 8.9% and an effective tax rate of 26.9%.   Yet Congress (mainly Democrats) “investigates” price gouging every time gas prices go up, without hauling in Tim Cook to grill him over the price of each new iPhone model. Repeated previous investigations have shown that domestic gasoline prices are mainly a function of world oil prices, which are not under the control of U.S. companies. Nevertheless, after berating oil execs for increasing oil production,  here come the grandstanding Congressional attack dogs, holding a hearing last week titled (wait for it…) “Gouged at the Gas Station: Big Oil and America’s Pain at the Pump”.

The oil producers patiently explained that “We do not control the price of crude oil or natural gas, nor of refined products like gasoline and diesel fuel,” and “”It [the U.S. oil industry] is experiencing severe cost inflation, a labor shortage due to three downturns in 12 years, shortages of drilling rigs, frack fleets, frack sand, steel pipe, and other equipment and materials.” But it is not clear that anyone was listening to the facts.