High Oil Prices Put Focus on Strategic Petroleum Reserve

Article excerpt

Uncle Sam is adding 60,000 barrels of oil a day to giant underground caverns in Texas and Louisiana to be used for the proverbial "rainy day."

Is it raining yet?

The price of oil is moving closer to $120 a barrel, up almost $19 a barrel for the month. Gasoline stations can barely change their prices fast enough, and the cost of regular grade hit a record $3.54 a gallon on Wednesday morning, according to GasPriceWatch.com.

The driving club AAA is raising its estimate of Memorial Day pump prices to $3.75 a gallon, up 25 cents a gallon from its earlier prediction.

"At some point, we have to think about whether we have a price emergency on our hands," says Geoff Sundstrom, a spokesman for AAA in Heathrow, Fla.

Proponents of the government taking action to ease the crunch say that storing oil at a time of soaring prices, in what is called the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), does not makes sense. Some want some oil released in the hope that it will drive down prices. Opponents counter that using the SPR would probably have little impact. In fact, they maintain, as does President Bush, that there is no emergency.

But on the campaign trail, the prospect of using the nation's rainy-day supply is catching on. Last week, Sen. John McCain, the Republican candidate for president, called for the government to stopping adding to the reserve. A week ago at a candidates' debate in Pennsylvania, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) said she would not only stop adding to the reserve, but would also release oil to try to drive prices down. Sen. Barack Obama, the other Democratic candidate for president, believes the SPR should be used for short- term supply disruptions, but he does not believe it should be currently tapped, according to Jason Grumet, an adviser on energy to Senator Obama. Like Senator McCain, however, Obama would stop adding to the SPR at these prices, Mr. Grumet says.

Despite the candidates' wishes, Mr. Bush maintains that the SPR is off limits, to be used only in the event of a natural catastrophe or a major supply disruption overseas.

"The Department of Energy will continue to fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve at very modest rates to provide an added layer of protection in cases of severe disruption," says Megan Barnett, a spokeswoman for the agency in Washington.

The Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 established the reserve. Signed into law by President Ford, the act gives the president the sole authority to decide when to release oil from the reserve. Congress has discussed automatic triggers for release but has never changed the law.

At issue now are the reserve's 701. …