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Robert Rapier

Robert Rapier

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What’s Next For America’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve?

  • The Biden Administration has been scrambling to lower gasoline prices, and America’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve is playing a vital role in the administration’s strategy.
  • Former President Donald Trump recently made the false that he had filled the “nearly-empty” SPR during his presidency.
  • The SPR will remain a highly important resource as supply concerns continue to grow, but Biden should tread carefully.

I have often noted that presidents have few ways to impact gasoline prices in the short term. However, one of the ways they can make a short-term impact is to release oil from the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). The U.S. created the SPR in 1975 following the 1973–1974 oil embargo, to protect against future oil supply disruptions. Although it is supposed to be used for severe supply disruptions, politicians have historically used it to try to stem rising gasoline prices — especially in election years.

Thus, in this election year — and with gasoline prices on the rise — one of my 2022 predictions was “The Biden Administration will announce additional releases of oil from the SPR ahead of the midterm elections.”

A Prediction Fulfilled

Last week President Biden announced the largest SPR release in the history of the reserve. The White House released the following statement:

“The scale of this release is unprecedented: the world has never had a release of oil reserves at this 1 million per day rate for this length of time. This record release will provide a historic amount of supply to serve as bridge until the end of the year when domestic production ramps up.”

Indeed, we have never seen a release of this magnitude before. If the full release is realized, it will reduce the SPR inventory back to levels last seen in the early 1980s.

President Trump’s Odd Claim

The announcement prompted an odd response from former President Trump. Through his spokesperson, President Trump claimed:

“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.”

There’s just nothing about that statement that is true. As you can see in the graphic below, the SPR levels have never fallen below 500,000 thousand (i.e., 500 million) barrels of crude oil since the 1980s.

Related: Oil Prices Rebound Despite Biden's Best Efforts

In fact, the highest level ever for the SPR was in 2010, when Barack Obama was president. Further, there was actually a net decline in the SPR when President Trump was in office. When he took office in January 2017, the SPR contained 695 million barrels. When he left office four years later, the SPR contained 638 million barrels. So not only is the claim of filling it untrue, but the level of the SPR actually declined while President Trump was in office.

One thing President Trump did propose was to top off the SPR when the Covid-19 pandemic was crushing oil demand. In March 2020 President Trump directed the Department of Energy to “fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) to its maximum capacity by purchasing 77 million barrels of American-made crude oil.”

That directive may be the source of President Trump’s confusion on the issue. However, 1). The directive was never carried out; and 2). The SPR was already within 13% of its highest-ever level when that directive was issued. So it’s not as if the SPR was empty at the time.

What Happens Next?

Donald Trump’s claims aside, what will be the impact of this release? And is it a wise thing to do?

Given the magnitude of the release, it is likely to have a substantial downward impact on oil and gasoline prices over the next few months. Whether that decline can be sustained is really dependent upon just how quickly U.S. oil production continues to ramp up — as well as what happens with Russian oil supplies.

It’s highly unlikely that U.S. production will increase by 1 million BPD in the next six months, but that timing will also mark the end of the high-demand season in the U.S. So it’s possible that the impact will be sustained. Further, six months from now is just before the November elections, so additional releases could be announced if the current releases don’t have the desired impact.

Of course, the SPR was put in place to guard against severe supply disruptions. We are not experiencing a severe supply disruption. Yes, we have banned the import of Russian oil, but that oil will make its way to other customers. But imagine that we do deplete the SPR to the lowest levels since the 1980s, and then a severe supply disruption does take place.

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An analogy to this would be deciding to insure your $500,000 home for $200,000. You could probably get away with it, because your home is unlikely to be destroyed in a natural disaster. But, if it was, you may find yourself in deep trouble when you are unable to replace your home.

That’s the risk of a depleted SPR. If we have no severe supply disruptions, it may be looked upon as a bold move that helped bring oil prices under control. But if there is a severe supply disruption in the next few years, it will be viewed as an incredibly foolish and short-sighted move that put the U.S. at greater risk. History will be the judge of whether this was a good idea, but it is definitely a move that comes with risk.

By Robert Rapier

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  • Mamdouh Salameh on April 05 2022 said:
    While it is the prerogative of a US president to tap into the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserves (SPR) when needed, the released barrels will still have to be replaced at a later time probably at higher prices.

    In a tight global market at its most bullish state since 2014 and a robust global oil demand, adding 1.0 million barrels a day (mbd) will hardly impact prices and even if it does it will be short-lived. At best, it may slightly alleviate the tightness in the market. But their real achievement is to let President Biden tell the American people that he is doing everything within his power to alleviate their pain at the pump.

    The Biden administration is utilizing the SPR differently than it was utilized before. Previously, the SPR was strategically deployed as a means to mitigate supply disruptions or refinery outages, but the Biden administration is attempting to tactically wield it to control prices.

    But President Biden has neither any influence on the rising global oil prices nor on the gasoline prices in the United States. Gasoline prices are being pushed upwards by global crude prices and an accelerating inflation rate which has already hit 8.3%.

    The rocketing energy prices and rising inflationary pressure are feeding into the cost of manufacturing and food materials and reducing the purchasing power of ordinary Americans. This is a recipe for an approaching recession in the United States.

    And to complicate matters further, US shale oil is a spent force. The maximum shale oil production could rise in 2022 is 200,000-300,000 barrels a day (b/d) over the 2021 claimed average of 11.0 mbd.

    OPEC+ has repeatedly rejected calls by President Biden and later by the UK and the European Union (EU) to lift production above the agreed volume of 400,000 b/d monthly because it strongly believes that the global oil market is still balanced. OPEC+ wants to keep whatever small spare capacity it has for use when the market becomes imbalanced.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • MJSmith on April 06 2022 said:
    Your article is missing the beef of Biden’s plan impact on specific inventory quantities post this 1MM BBL per day deduction. Also, what happens to the +60% profit of selling this oil? Goes to the USA or whom? Lastly, picking on Trump is kind of unusual for a what’s next article.

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