Falling oil imports have greatly expanded the capability of the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve to replace oil imports in a crisis, although prices would still rise.
The SPR remains an imperfect backstop. Post-Syria, it is high time for Congress and the White House to address its gaps after four decades of change.
Without adding a drop — the SPR actually shrank a bit in 2011 — the reserve’s potential to replace daily oil imports in a crisis has soared as those imports have declined. This could prove extremely helpful should the complex talks over securing Syria's chemical weapons break down, and the US and France proceed with missile or air strikes. Longer term, it serves as a further reminder that the existing SPR was designed for another era and is overdue for a major rethink.
Having 700 million barrels of oil available in federal facilities along the Gulf Coast has tempted presidents and other politicians, who saw opportunities to benefit from using it to attempt to crush periodic gasoline price spikes. However, the recent situation came much closer to the scenarios the SPR was intended to address when it was begun during the Ford administration, to provide a backstop for our vital energy supplies in emergencies involving the physical interruption of supply. When it comes to uses of the SPR, I’ve always been a purist, perhaps because I can recall sitting in gas lines and participating involuntarily in the bizarre “odd-even” rationing-by-license-plate scheme introduced during the oil crisis following the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
Here’s how the benefits of tapping the SPR in an actual crisis have improved, based on the rapid recent drop in US oil imports. In 2007, the SPR could have replaced just over half of our crude oil imports from countries other than Canada or Mexico for 165 days, at its maximum draw-down rate of 4.25 million barrels per day. With its current inventory and this year’s average crude oil imports through June running at around 7.6 million barrels per day, the SPR could substitute for 100% of our non-North American imports for 163 days. The value of such an insurance policy is rarely appreciated until it is needed.
Of course in practice the situation would be more complicated, mainly for reasons that support the case for rethinking the current 1970s-vintage reserve. One problem is that the oil stored in caverns near the Gulf of Mexico wouldn’t provide much immediate assistance for east coast refineries or for the West Coast, which has become increasingly dependent on imports as production in both Alaska and California declined steadily. Then there’s the issue of quality. Nearly 40% of the SPR oil is light and sweet (low in sulfur), while much of the oil we still import is heavy and sour (higher sulfur), to match the requirements of current refinery configurations. With production of light sweet crude in Texas and North Dakota booming, releasing sweet crude from the SPR could compound regional imbalances and possibly result in reduced refinery utilization. Any redesign of the SPR should take these important shifts into account.
Oil prices jumped just at the thought of a cruise missile attack on Syria, so it’s worth recalling what a back-up supply from the SPR can and can’t do. It can buffer the US economy from the impact of a serious interruption in the flow of crude oil cargoes from the Middle East or elsewhere, for some months. US refineries would continue to operate, as would the planes, trains, trucks and ships they fuel, and on which commerce depends. However, consumers wouldn’t be insulated from the price increases that would accompany any major disruption in Middle East oil exports, because the SPR oil must be auctioned to refiners at market prices. The resulting situation at gas stations might look a lot like price-gouging, with social media rapidly spreading outrage and conspiracy theories. The fallout from that could be disruptive, too, if somewhat less so than widespread fuel shortages and “out of gas” signs.
A different version of this posting was previously published on Energy Trends Insider.