Thursday, March 08, 2012

Is There A Better Way to Use Strategic Petroleum Reserve Oil Now?

With US gas prices rising rapidly to record levels for this time of year, it was inevitable that some politicians would start calling for a portion of the oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) to be released in hopes of moderating high oil prices, which are mainly responsible for the current gas price spike. A narrow majority of Americans apparently agrees. This is a profoundly bad idea, for reasons of both actual US energy security and the uneven effectiveness of past releases. However, rather than railing against this proposal, it occurred to me that there might just be a better way, an alternative that could send the signals that those concerned about commodity speculation wish to send, but without draining oil that we would miss in an actual supply crisis. What if instead of instructing the Secretary of Energy to sell a certain quantity of oil from the SPR, the President told him to sell an equivalent volume of call options on SPR oil, on the condition that they that could only be executed in an actual emergency?

The SPR was established in the 1970s, and as I've noted on several occasions it's overdue for a major redesign to reflect the ways in which both the world and US energy consumption patterns and infrastructure have changed in the interim. However, this is clearly not the appropriate time for such an undertaking, with the very real prospect of a major disruption in the Middle East that might require the largest-ever SPR release to address.

The past history of SPR releases is well-documented. The two releases most relevant to the current situation include last year's release of 30 million barrels in coordination with other member countries of the International Energy Agency, to compensate for reduced exports from Libya resulting from the revolution that overturned Col. Gaddafi's regime. Although one could argue about the appropriateness of that response in the absence of a meaningful disruption in oil deliveries to the US, its outcome is now clear. The market impact of the release was small and quickly dissipated in the noise of market volatility. That stands in marked contrast to the SPR release announced at the start of hostilities in the Gulf War in 1991. Following the announcement of a 34 million barrel SPR sale, only half of which was ultimately delivered, oil prices fell by 33% literally overnight. I will never forget that, because I was trading petroleum products in London for Texaco at the time and the sudden shift in prices was stressful, to say the least. The lesson I take from these and other examples is that SPR releases are much more effective in an actual emergency than when they are perceived as merely attempts to manipulate the market.

But let's give those calling for a release now the benefit of the doubt that $125 oil and the resulting near-$4 gas prices might be at least partly the result of speculation--all the while recognizing that for every speculative buyer there must be a seller taking the opposite view of prices. If the Department of Energy were to sell options on SPR oil, instead of the oil itself, it could accomplish several useful things in this scenario. First, it would send a stronger signal to the market than the will-he-or-won't-he cloud that customarily hangs over such releases, conveying that the US is serious about covering a shortfall that might result from the manifestation of the various risks that have driven up oil prices by about 13% since the beginning of the year, notably focused on tensions with Iran. It would also generate a bit of revenue for the Treasury, in the amount of the option premiums collected. More importantly, it could significantly shorten the normal delay between the decision to hold an SPR sale and its actual execution, by identifying, pre-qualifying and contracting with specific buyers ahead of actual need. Hastening the flow of SPR oil in a crisis by a week or two could be very helpful. And the best feature from my perspective is that the whole time the oil would stay right where it should remain until it's really needed, in the SPR caverns on the Gulf Coast.

A number of crucial details would have to be worked out, including the careful specification of the precise circumstances under which the options could be triggered, how long they would remain active before expiring, who would be eligible to purchase them, and for what purposes. In order to be of value to buyers, the triggering event(s) would have to be objectively observable and not under the seller's control. Perhaps a specified reduction in exports through the Strait of Hormuz, or the outbreak of hostilities between Iran and Israel or the US would be the most suitable choices, since it is presumably such risks that have taken oil prices to their current level.

I don't know whether selling SPR options would be permissible under current statutes. If not, it might be hard to get a change like this through a deadlocked Congress, even though the idea of selling options rather than physical oil ahead of an actual emergency straddles the concerns of both parties. I'm also sure there would be unintended consequences, as well as a lot of finger-pointing after the fact if some trader or refiner made a fortune on one of these transactions. Still, it seems worth exploring as an alternative that might be useful, not just when we're facing high prices and a potential crisis but under more routine circumstances.

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