Two weeks ago we previewed that the U.S. Department of Energy could begin to sell off some of its strategic petroleum reserve (SPR) as soon as January, the beginning of a multi-year process to shrink the nation’s stockpile of oil. Congress has authorized DOE to sell off $375.4 million worth of oil in its recent budget resolution. The DOE said that such a sale could be held in January 2017.
Part of the motivation to sell crude is to finance upkeep for the SPR itself. The reserves are held in salt caverns in Louisiana and Texas, setup decades ago in the aftermath of the Arab Oil Embargo in 1973. The SPR system can hold more than 700 million barrels of oil, the largest strategic stockpile in the world. The idea is that the SPR holds 90 days’ worth of oil supplies, which could be released in the event of a global outage. A release has only occurred a handful of times, such as the Persian Gulf War, Hurricane Katrina and the Arab Spring.
Some of the storage systems are rusting and corroding after decades of use. In September, the DOE issued a report to Congress, which came to a dire conclusion about the condition of the reserve. “This equipment today is near, at, or beyond the end of its design life,” the report said. The sale "will allow the Department to take necessary steps to increase the integrity and extend the life” of the reserve, a DOE spokesperson said in December after the budget resolution was passed.
In the past, the SPR has been viewed as a cornerstone of US energy security policy. As long as the U.S. had 3 months’ worth of supply, it could weather unexpected disruptions. The International Energy Agency was setup in the 1970s as well, and participating members – in addition to the U.S., the group includes Europe, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand – also have pledged to hold a 90-day supply. However, U.S. policymakers no longer view the SPR is all that important. Even the more hawkish members of Congress have been lulled into a sense of security from the surge in U.S. oil production and the resulting crash in oil prices. The world is awash in oil, so why does the U.S. need to stockpile such a massive volume of oil at great expense? The ostensible reason of selling off oil from the SPR is to finance its maintenance to ensure its existence over the long-term, but if the Congress still truly believed in the importance of the SPR, they would have found funding elsewhere instead of reducing the stockpile.
In any event, the previously previewed sale is about to take place, and according to an announcement by the DOE, the US will offer to sell some 8 million barrels from the petroleum reserve. According to the notice of sale, the Energy Department is accepting bids on sweet crude oil until 2pm CT Jan. 17. The contracts will then awarded by the end of January, with early deliveries expected in February and other deliveries in March, April.
The sale includes:
- Up to 3m bbl from Bryan Mound
- Up to 3m bbl from Big Hill
- Up to 2m bbl from West Hackberry
It is unclear yet if the upcoming sale will pressure oil prices, or whether China - which unlike the US has been aggressively stockpiling oil for its own strategic petroleum reserve over the past year - will be the ultimate buyer.