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Geography in the News: U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserves

By Neal G. Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Appalachian State University

With average gas prices in the United States hovering around $4 a gallon in October, 2012, the Obama administration briefly considered releasing some of the oil held in the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). While it was unlikely the administration would do so and many say it would not alleviate prices at the pump anyway, it is a strategy often touted when gas prices rise quickly. More recently prices began falling, but the strategy will likely come up again with future price fluctuations.

The U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, with a capacity of 727 million barrels, is the largest stockpile of government-owned emergency crude oil in the world. The United States Department of Energy (DOE) maintains the SPR.

Today, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve has an inventory of 694.4 million barrels of crude oil. At current daily U.S. consumption levels of 19.5 million barrels, the SPR could provide about 36 days of oil. The total value of the crude oil in the SPR is approximately $64.5 billion.

Four different sites on the Gulf of Mexico coast house the crude oil in the SPR. All of the oil in those sites is stored underground in 62 massive excavated salt caverns. The DOE is currently building a new site in Mississippi.

The Gulf Coast is the perfect geographic location for the SPR’s storage facilities. Not only is it close to the country’s oil transport network and many of the largest refineries, but the region also boasts approximately 500 gigantic underground salt domes. Defined as domelike structures of stratified rocks containing a central core of salt, salt domes are an inexpensive, relatively simple and very secure way to store oil.

The President of the United States does occasionally call on the SPR to release oil. For example, during July and August 2011, President Obama released 30.5 million barrels of oil from the SPR into the global oil markets in response to disruptions of global petroleum supplies caused by the civil unrest in Libya. Likewise, under President George Bush, 20.8 million barrels from the SPR were sold to refineries after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005.

Although the latest spike in gas prices seems to have moderated, international oil prices can suddenly increase with any provocation. Just releasing oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, however, can affect the price of gasoline at the pump only modestly. Consequently, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is a safety valve of critical importance to the nation for use only in a time of extreme crisis.

And that is Geography in the News.

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.

Read more than 700 of the 1200 full-length weekly Geography in the News articles week in the K-12 online resource Maps101, including supporting materials, critical thinking questions and Spanish translations at Maps.com.