Strategic Petroleum Reserve

Jim Brown
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Back before the OPEC meeting the Obama administration held talks with Saudi Arabia on swapping oil in the SPR for new oil Saudi would produce. This revelation shocked many traders and suggests the administration is unaware of the strategic reasons behind the SPR.

The Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) holds 727 million barrels of oil that is "reserved" for times when oil is not available on the open market due to war, hurricane, embargo, etc. The oil in the SPR is not there to be used to manipulate prices. It is a "strategic" reserve. Most presidents have forgotten what strategic means and have instead treated it like a "Political Petroleum Reserve."

The SPR was created by President Ford in 1975 as an answer to the 1973-1974 oil embargo when Arab nations cut off supplies of oil to the USA. Although commissioned in 1975 with construction beginning in 1976 and the first shipment into the reserve in July 1977 it was not until Christmas Day 2009 that the SPR was finally filled to capacity. It took 32 YEARS to fill the reserve. Oil was purchased outright and also procured as a Royalty-in-Kind (RIK) from U.S. producers in lieu of royalty payments to the Federal government.

In 2005 Congress decided the events in the Middle East were suggesting future problems for imported oil and they authorized an expansion of the SPR to one billion barrels. However, despite a comprehensive plan to locate and prepare additional storage facilities there has been no actual construction to fulfill the authorization. The current administration is "reviewing" the plans and the reason behind the SPR.

It has been tapped in the past when national disasters like Katrina knocked out the Louisiana Offshore Oil Platform (LOOP) where oil imported from overseas is offloaded into pipelines for transport to refineries. I view that as a valid use since the amount of oil released is trivial and will be replaced as soon as practical after the disaster. Actually the refineries receiving the oil from the SPR have to replace it with oil within so many weeks after the disaster is over. There have been two major drawdowns from the SPR. Desert Storm saw a distribution of 17.3 million barrels when prices when world supplies dropped after Kuwait was invaded and Iraq production was degraded. The second major drawdown was after Katrina when 25% of our domestic production was halted. The DOE authorized a sale of 30 million barrels but only 11 million were actually purchased by refiners.

The current SPR inventory is 292.5 million barrels of light sweet crude and 434 million of heavy sour crude.

We found out last week that the current administration held talks with Saudi Arabia on taking light sweet crude, the kind in short supply, and shipping it to Europe and replacing it with heavy sour crude from Saudi Arabia.

Europe is facing a very tight situation today with the loss of 1.5 mbpd of light crude production from Libya. Since light crude supplies in general are what controls oil prices the shortage of sufficient light oil has pushed Brent prices well over $100. There is no shortage of heavy sour crude but there are fewer refineries that can process that crude and that makes heavy sour crude a lot cheaper on the world markets.

In the U.S. we have a mix of refineries with some capable of processing the cheaper oil and some only the light oil.

If we were to take out 1.5 mbpd of light sweet crude from the SPR and send it to Europe to replace the Libyan crude when would that program end? The IEA does not expect Libyan crude to be back at full production until 2015. Obviously at the rate of 1.5 mbpd (45 mb per month) we could not supply the missing oil for more than a few months.

By replacing that highly desirable light oil with less than desirable heavy oil we would be reducing the value of our strategic reserves. If this program continued for several months our flexibility in handling future real emergencies would be degraded. It took 32 years to fill the reserve and that period covered times of plenty and times of scarcity, economic boom and economic bust.

With the budget under extreme pressure and spending cut comments in every newscast should we really be depleting our strategic reserves so Europe can have cheaper gasoline and Saudi Arabia can sell more low quality oil without going through the OPEC quota program? I think not.

The SPR is a STRATEGIC reserve that lawmakers saw fit to construct and fill at the cost of billions of dollars. Politically several presidents have talked about releasing oil to reduce fuel prices in the USA but so far they have all been dissuaded from weakening the strategic value of the reserve.

Lawmakers should prevent presidents from making these kinds of political moves. When we actually need this oil we need it to be there. If Iran obtains a nuclear weapon there are two targets at the top of their hit list. The first is Israel although they may not follow through with that attack because of the tremendous retaliation Israel could inflict on Iran. The second target is their archenemy Saudi Arabia. If they could knock out Saudi's major oil terminal they could inflict severe financial damage on Saudi and eliminate Saudi's financial influence in the region. The loss of Saudi's 10.0 mbpd of production would immediately send oil prices well over $200 a barrel and Iran's oil would be worth triple what it is today. Of course they would still have the problem of selling it because global sanctions would be severe.

Al Qaeda has targeted the Saudi oil fields and production facilities for years but have so far been unable to mount an effective attack. If al Qaeda eventually manages to act on their aspirations the same significant drop in the worlds oil supply would appear.

Today's Arab Spring uprising all over the Middle East and Northern Africa is another warning that oil supplies from that region could dry up in a matter of days given the right sequence of events. This is all the more reason we should not dwindle away our strategic resources.

Lastly, China is eventually going to be a serious thorn in our oil supply. Chinese generals have said China will be at war with the U.S. by the end of the decade over natural resources. China could cause the U.S. great harm by interdicting oil supplies from the Middle East. If they believe we don't have the backbone to stand up to them in an armed conflict then they could take action to acquire more supplies and it would be our loss.

As we continue approaching the peak in oil production we are going to see news events increasing in frequency that will make our strategic reserves more strategic. The U.S. military already believes there will be shortages in 2012 and that shortage could grow to 10 million barrels per day by 2015.

U.S. Joint Operating Environment, Page 29

If our own military believes there will be shortages by 2012 and severe shortages by 2015 why would we want to send critical supplies of light crude to Europe in exchange for sour crude from Saudi Arabia?

The administration claims they have a plan "teed up" to use the SPR in the case of market shifts. Let's hope that plan fails to leave the tee and calmer and less political heads prevail.

Jim Brown

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The OilSlick Newsletter is based on the expectations for global oil production of light sweet crude to peak and begin to decline in the 2012-2013 timeframe. I am calling this "Peak Sweet™" instead of Peak Oil. This is the point where global production of conventional light sweet crude supplies can no longer be supplemented by enough oil sands production, deepwater oil production, biofuels and natural gas liquids to offset the decline in existing fields. The roughly 6% annual decline of existing production due to depletion is larger than the rate of new discoveries and new production being added each year. The Peak Sweet™ countdown clock is ticking and time is growing short. Peak Oil will arrive shortly thereafter. Are you prepared?