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Robert Rapier

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The Politics Of The Strategic Petroleum Reserve: A Comprehensive Review

  • The SPR began to be filled during President Carter's term, with President Reagan making significant contributions and leading the SPR level to reach 560 million barrels by the end of his two terms.
  • Presidents Clinton and Obama depleted the SPR to combat high gasoline prices, with Obama leaving the reserve at 695 million barrels at the end of his term. 
  • President Biden has drawn down the SPR by 266 million barrels in his first two years, and has announced the most aggressive SPR drawdown in history, largely in response to rising gasoline prices and the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

The U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) was established in December 1975 in the wake of the 1973 OPEC oil embargo. The law establishing the SPR said it was designed “to reduce the impact of severe energy supply interruptions” such as that caused by the embargo.

The U.S. government began to fill the reserve in the late 1970s. At its high point in 2010, the level reach 727 million barrels. At present, it stands at 347 million barrels, the lowest level since August 1983.

President Trump has repeatedly claimed that he “filled up” the SPR, but Biden has “virtually drained” it. In 2022, after President Biden announced the largest SPR release in history, Trump issued a statement:

“So, after 50 years of being virtually empty, I built up our oil reserves during my administration, and low energy prices, to 100% full. It’s called the Strategic National Reserves, and it hasn’t been full for many decades. In fact, it’s been mostly empty.”

I addressed this claim at the time, but I thought it might be interesting to look at the history of the SPR, highlighting the volume changes during each administration. All data can be reviewed at the Energy Information Administration’s website (data link).

The SPR began to be filled in 1977, which was the first year of President Carter’s term. By the time Ronald Reagan was inaugurated, the SPR level had been filled to about 108 million barrels.

President Reagan made it a priority to fill the SPR. During his first term, he added 343 million barrels to the SPR, with another 109 million barrels added during his second term. By the time President Reagan left office, the SPR level had reached 560 million barrels. No other president would come close to the 452 million barrels that were added during President Reagan’s two terms.

Change in the Level of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve by President ROBERT RAPIER

The fill rate declined considerably during the term of President George H. W. Bush, with only another 15 million barrels being added by the time President Clinton took office. This was in part due to the first substantial release from the SPR during Operation Desert Storm. But the overall capacity of the SPR was also lower then, and that may have also been a factor in the slower build during Bush’s term.

President Clinton would be the first President to aggressively use the SPR to attempt to fight high gasoline prices. Politicians would begin to make a habit of calling for SPR releases ahead of elections, because high gasoline prices get politicians thrown out of office. During President Clinton’s first term, the SPR was depleted by 9 million barrels, and another 25 million barrels were sold from the SPR during his second term.

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush announced that the SPR would be filled to its capacity. He said “The Strategic Petroleum Reserve is an important element of our nation’s energy security. To maximize long-term protection against oil supply disruptions, I am directing the Secretary of Energy to fill the SPR up to its 700-million-barrel capacity.”

President Bush would add 135 million barrels to the SPR during his first term, and another 26 million barrels during his second term. By the time Barack Obama was inaugurated, the SPR level would be at 702 million barrels.

During the first two years of President Obama’s first term, the level of the SPR grew to 727 million barrels — the highest level to date. But as his second presidential campaign was facing headwinds from rising gasoline prices, President Obama would go back to the Clinton playbook of using the SPR to curb gasoline prices.

During President Obama’s first term, the SPR was depleted by 7 million barrels. But from its peak the SPR was reduced by more than 30 million barrels by the end of Obama’s first term. President Obama’s second term saw less activity in the SPR, with the level decreasing by only another 200,000 barrels.

President Donald Trump inherited an SPR with a level of 695 million barrels. For each of his first three years in office, the level of the SPR declined. By the end of 2019, the level had fallen by 60 million barrels to 635 million barrels.

But then on March 19, 2020, President Trump directed the Department of Energy to fill the SPR to maximum capacity to help support domestic oil producers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Funding was blocked by Congress, but 2020 did see a slight increase in the SPR to 638 million barrels. However, President Trump became the first Republican president in the history of the SPR to see a net decline in the SPR volume during his term.

President Joe Biden inherited an SPR at 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 years in office, the SPR was drawn down by 266 million barrels. So far in 2023, another 25 million barrels have been sold from the SPR.

Weekly U.S. Ending Crude Oil Stocks in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve ROBERT RAPIER

Thus, President Reagan was the champion of SPR fills, and President Biden is the champion of SPR depletions. Overall, with the exception of President Trump, Republicans have increased SPR levels during their terms. Democrats, with the exception of President Carter, have decreased SPR levels.

Add it all up, and Democrats after Carter drew the SPR down by 306 million barrels, and Republicans increased the SPR by 571 billion barrels.

By Robert Rapier 

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  • George Doolittle on July 11 2023 said:
    At 10 million barrels per day fill rate the USA could with its own production add 300 million barrels of oil upon the SPR in just one Month this being the Summer Driving Season and of course Flying Season would mean bad news for domestic Aviation though not so much for domestic vehicle manufacturers which have diversified away from ICE Platform exclusivity. This also includes now 2 stroke small engine lawn care as well as who can afford the non pure BEV variant of that?

    In short the US domestic energy Industry providers continue to price themselves out of their own market...the most valuable energy market in the World namely the US domestic energy market in particular USA East Coast where the largest concentration of population lives on Earth outside of Europe and China.

    This might seem odd to anyone #not_from_KSA but oil upon the USA must be "marketed" meaning people must be told in the USA that oil is a necessary product. By way of specific example this be not the case as true for natural gas which #irony natural gas is dirt cheap and widely available in said USA #even_exported in volume now #global_reserve
  • Mamdouh Salameh on July 12 2023 said:
    What matters is that it will take years for the SPR to be filled to 638 million barrels (mb) which President Biden inherited when he became president.

    Where is he going to find 291 mb to fill the SPR in the current oil market situation? US shale oil is a spent force incapable of raising its production to help refill the SPR and the market doesn’t have any spare oil for sale. Meanwhile, the US geopolitical risks are on the rise.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Global Energy Expert

Leave a comment

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