The Biden Administration Is Gambling With the Strategic Petroleum Reserve

The United States established its Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) in the wake of the 1973–1974 oil embargo that disrupted oil imports and drove oil prices much higher.

The SPR consists primarily of several large underground salt caverns for storage located along the Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana. These sites were chosen based on their geologic stability and ability to safely store hundreds of millions of barrels of crude oil. The SPR has the capacity to hold enough crude oil to help mitigate the impact of severe supply interruptions.

The President of the United States has the authority to order the release of SPR oil in response to energy supply emergencies or to meet obligations under the International Energy Program. However, these emergencies have often been broadly interpreted to mean rising gasoline prices, especially in election years.

President Biden inherited an SPR that contained 638 million barrels. However, first in response to rising gasoline prices, and then as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Biden announced the most aggressive SPR drawdown in history. During his first two and a half years in office, the SPR was drawn down by 291 million barrels, to the lowest level since 1983.

Critics charge that this puts U.S. energy security at risk. Others counter that because the U.S. is now the world’s top oil producer, we are less dependent on oil imports. There is an element of truth to this argument, in that net U.S. imports have fallen.

However, that argument requires context. The U.S. exports a lot of oil, because the oil we produce isn’t a great economic fit for U.S. refiners. Therefore, we export a lot of the oil we produce domestically, and we import a lot of cheaper foreign oil. Thus, the loss of oil imports would cause some disruptions, even though our net petroleum imports have fallen sharply in recent years.

The Biden Administration has replaced some of the oil that was removed from the SPR and has announced that it would repurchase more “as market conditions allow.” However, this is an election year. One thing an incumbent president abhors is rising gasoline prices during election years. Therefore, I don’t believe we will see anything more than token purchases for the rest of the year.

One of my 2024 energy predictions was that the Biden Administration wouldn’t replace more than 10% of the oil that was removed from the SPR. So far, the administration has only replaced 4% of what was removed.

It won’t be long before refiners start to transition to summer gasoline blends. That will cause gasoline prices to rise, as it does every spring. Even if token SPR purchases are still going on at that time, they will probably be suspended then so they won’t contribute any additional upward pressure on gasoline prices.

There is certainly risk to this strategy. If geopolitical events disrupt the oil markets, it will look foolhardy in hindsight, and there will likely be repercussions. However, if the oil markets have an uneventful year, there may be no political consequences.

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