New Realities, New Risks: Rethinking the Strategic Petroleum Reserve

Lead PI: Jason Bordoff , Antoine Halff

Unit Affiliation: Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP)

May 2018 - Ongoing
North America ; United States
Project Type: Research Outreach

DESCRIPTION: The realities of the modern oil market have thrown into question the need for the US emergency oil stockpile. For more than 40 years, the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) has existed as a buffer between US oil markets and global supply shocks. A byproduct of the 1973–1974 oil embargo, the SPR was born in an age when US crude production was in decline, imports were rising, and the oil market was dominated by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Over the intervening years, the reserve was tapped only a handful of times as the oil market has grown much larger, deeper, more liquid, and better integrated and thus more able to address shortfalls of various magnitudes that previously would have caused greater pain for oil-importing countries. In regard to US national oil supply security, however, perhaps the greatest change has been the boom in domestic production over the past decade due to hydraulic fracturing of shale and other tight oil deposits.

The new US energy fortune has thus given rise to a view that the SPR—which formerly enjoyed wide bipartisan support—could be sold off to plug spending holes without creating significant energy security risks. The US Congress has already passed several measures to significantly pare down the size of the SPR through a series of drawdowns staggered over the coming decade. The emerging and important discussion over whether the SPR has become too large or altogether useless, or whether it should be kept whole, prompted the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs to research how the SPR fits into the modern oil market—and indeed the wider global energy system—and whether the United States would benefit from modifying or eliminating it.