Congress is about to legislate that the U.S. government stop
purchasing oil for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). Some
believe that this would bring gasoline prices down; in reality,
however, shutting down the oil supply to the SPR would jeopardize
the security of the United States, and infringe upon the executive
authority of the President to ensure the nation's defense, while
having no appreciable effect on gas prices. Congress should leave
the SPR alone.
A Vital Fuel Reserve
The SPR is a 700 million-barrel emergency store of oil maintained
by the national government for a very rainy day: a war or a sudden
interruption of the oil supply from one or more of the unstable
countries-Venezuela, Nigeria, and the Persian Gulf states-from
which the U.S. buys fuel. Established in the aftermath of the
1973-1974 oil embargo, the SPR gives the President a powerful
response option should a disruption in commercial oil supplies
threaten the U.S. economy. It also allows the United States to meet
part of its International Energy Agency obligation to maintain
emergency oil stocks and provides a national defense fuel reserve.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 directed the Secretary of
Energy to fill the SPR to its authorized billion-barrel
As President George W. Bush has said, the U.S. is addicted to
foreign oil-and the country has yet to cure itself of this
condition: It imports 64 percent of the 20 million barrels per day
that it consumes, and the habit is growing. Oil accounts for 40
percent of U.S. energy consumption, most of it for transportation.
Unless and until the U.S. is no longer hooked on oil, having a
reliable emergency stock is vital, especially in today's volatile
Currently, the SPR is 27 million barrels short of its 727
million-barrel target, which would suffice for only 75 days of
consumption. In his January 23, 2007, State of the Union Address,
the President announced his decision to expand the SPR to 1.5
billion barrels "to further protect America against disruptions to
our oil supply."
The nation's need for an expanded SPR is based on (a) growing
U.S. consumption, increased imports, and ever greater international
risks and (b) U.S. obligations under the International Energy
Program, which requires that the United States maintain a 90-day
stockpile of petroleum imports. This is the minimum that a
superpower should have for a global emergency.
The Strategic Petroleum Reserve is, first and foremost, a tool
of national security policy. It was never intended that the SPR
would be used to tamper with the market or to play politics, that
its oil would be released in order to bring prices down, or that we
would stop filling the SPR to accommodate either the market or
short-term electoral interests in the campaign season.
Regrettably, those who are supposed to be in charge of this policy
would like to appear to be "doing something" for the voters about
the painful gas price issue. Thus, the Democrat-sponsored Consumer
First Energy Act of 2008, Title III, Sec. 301, proposes that oil
acquisition for the SPR be suspended. Beyond that, the Democrats
are effectively suggesting that the President not resume filling
the Reserve-possibly ever.
The legislation's authors would like to tamper arbitrarily with
the market price of oil, suggesting that the President may resume
acquisition of oil for the SPR only if the weighted average oil
price falls to less than $75 for three months. The Democrats even
want to tamper with existing contracts by instructing the Secretary
of Energy to "negotiate a deferral of the delivery of the oil for a
period of not less than one year." Republicans, in the Domestic
Energy Production Act of 2008, echo the same theme: They would like
to suspend oil acquisition for the SPR for 180 days.
Neither of these approaches will work, and both could be
dangerous. Cutting supply to the SPR could jeopardize America's
ability to respond to crises around the world, to fulfill its
international obligations, and to protect the homeland and our
It is unlikely that the availability of the additional rather
insignificant quantity of oil at issue-only 70,000 barrels a
day-could make a serious dent in today's skyrocketing oil prices.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration has already forecast
that, at best, the price of oil might drop by $2 a barrel, cutting
gasoline prices by 4-5 cents a gallon.
Seventy-thousand barrels of oil is only one-20th of what
drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) would
produce and possibly only one-50th of what could be produced if
exploration and drilling were allowed along the east and west U.S.
continental shelves and in the Gulf of Mexico. Stopping SPR
replenishment would be literally penny-wise and pound-foolish, as
the result could be a shortage of fuel that denies the U.S.
military operational freedom in a crisis. Moreover, congressional
tampering with presidential authority to fill the SPR may be
unconstitutional as it interferes with the executive branch's
authority to conduct national security policy and defend the
The White House spokesman was right when he announced that there
are no plans to release oil from the SPR to reduce the price of
gasoline: "There is no evidence…that doing that would
actually reduce the price of gasoline in any significant way at
all. And at the same time, if you are not filling the SPR, you are
not making that investment in our national security."
What to Do
Congress should refrain from tampering with the SPR, for both
national security and economic reasons. Such matters of national
security are within the constitutional authority of the President.
The proposed language in the Consumer First Energy Act of 2008 and
the Domestic Energy Production Act of 2008 can do more harm than
good to U.S. energy security and will not decrease gasoline
The SPR should be filled to 1.5 billion barrels as the President
requested. Congress should not interfere, but if it does, President
Bush will be well-advised to veto the legislation.
Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian
Studies and International Energy Security in the Douglas and Sarah
Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the
Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.