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.