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While you were huddled around the television watching football, me and ole Joe Biden were fussing over the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. He released 50 million barrels of crude oil into the open market, to counteract the rise in gasoline prices. I told him it wouldn’t mean spit. But did he listen? No. Here’s my reasoning.

During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries embargoed (withheld) oil from the United States because we resupplied the Israeli military.

That eventually sent our economy into a recession and drove us all into long lines at the gas pumps.

Congress was so aghast at the action that the United States implemented a Strategic Petroleum Reserve, to mitigate future supply disruptions.

Today, we have about 604.5 million barrels of crude in reserve, stored in deep underground salt domes at four sites along the Texas and Louisiana coasts.

Since the first test sale of strategic reserves in 1985, only 157 million barrels of crude has ever been released. It takes 13 days for the oil to enter the U.S. market from the president’s “go” decision and flows at a rate of 4.4 million barrels per day.

We also exchange crude from the reserve during emergencies, such as the 5.2 million barrels we delivered to Gulf Coast refineries following 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. That was to offset the capacity lost during the storm that resulted in fuel shortages. The oil companies replaced the crude, plus some. Call it interest on the loan of oil, if you will.

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So far, we have invested about $25.7 billion in the reserve, $20.7 billion for crude and $5 billion for facilities. The most ever held was 726.6 million barrels on Dec. 27, 2009. More recently, there were 634.9 million barrels at the end of 2019, or about 1,069 days’ supply of total U.S. petroleum net imports.

What’s it worth? At $77 a barrel (West Texas Intermediate was recently $73.77, ICE Brent Crude was $77.70, and Louisiana Light was $77.14) that means we have about $56 billion salted away in the reserve.

OK, how much do we consume? According to Statista, in 2020, we consumed approximately 20.54 million barrels of oil daily. So, as I told Joe, 50 million barrels of crude being released is only about 0.7% of our yearly demand or about two days worth, which is hardly anything.

Even if we gave it away free, $3.85 billion of crude would make only a small dent in the world’s yearly use of about $577 billion (0.6% or a drop from $3.327 to $3.307 a gallon in Kanawha County, for instance).

So, Joe told me that wasn’t the point. It was the perception that our government was doing something to hold down the price of gasoline. And, he added, it wasn’t just the United States. Other nations were releasing crude, as well, including India, China, Japan, the Republic of Korea and the United Kingdom.

Hmm. Well, if each county released 50 million barrels of crude (they’re not — India is releasing a days’ consumption, or 5 million barrels), then that would be 300 million barrels, tops, into a world that consumes 35,442 million barrels of oil a year (2016), or about 0.8%.

I told Joe the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is used to mitigate supply disruptions, meaning, we’d have some reserves if they cut us off again. It doesn’t mean spit when used as a price-control device. So, as the boys in Texas would say, this move of Joe’s was “all hat, no cattle.”

Tom Crouser is a business consultant living in Mink Shoals. Reach him at and follow @TomCrouser on Twitter. Also connect via Facebook and LinkedIn.

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