To pay for the new federal budget deal, which President Obama recently signed into law, Congress has agreed to sell 58 million of the 695 million barrels of the United States’ strategic petroleum reserve (SPR). At first glance, selling off 8 percent of federally-owned oil stocks may seem like a small price to pay for a bipartisan deal that will prevent an unprecedented government default. Before we sell our crude stocks for spare cash, however, we should first decide what goals the SPR should serve and, more fundamentally, whether an SPR makes sense at all.

Established by Congress in the mid-1970’s in response to the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo, the SPR began as a way to insulate the United States from the economic harms of crude oil supply disruptions. In the face of a national emergency, such as Hurricane Katrina, the President can authorize the release of stored federally-owned crude oil to help minimize disruptions to the global oil market. Forty years after inception, its stated purpose remains “to prevent serious economic harm to the United States in case of energy supply emergencies,” as the White House wrote in April 2015.


In practice, however, the Reserve has strayed beyond this mandate.

The recent budget deal is just one example of Congress’ growing appetite to tap the “oil piggy bank” and stretch the SPR beyond its stated purpose by using it as a funding source to support a wide range of policy measures. Just a few months ago, Congress agreed to sell off strategic stocks to support the Department of Transportation’s Highway Trust Fund. And it was only last spring that the House Energy and Commerce Committee proposed a sale of crude from the SPR to fund a $106.4 billion health care research bill.

The problem is not that any of these proposed uses of the Reserve are necessarily bad. It is that they are rash. Considering the economic and strategic interests at stake, before Washington can justify one-off sales to prop up bills for highways to health care, policymakers should first determine how, if at all, the SPR fits into today’s energy security picture.

The Obama administration, prompted partly by Congress, has announced a broad review intended to optimize the SPR in line with its current mandate. The final recommendations, expected in 2016, will likely tackle important design questions of optimal size, composition, and location. However, opportunities for such a comprehensive review are rare and the Administration should not limit its evaluation to simply design and structure; rather policymakers would do well to include deeper questions about the mandate itself—beginning with how we are already using the SPR.

One reason for expanding the scope of the review is that there may be more economically and geopolitically powerful ways of using the Reserve, if policymakers look beyond its original purpose. Beyond mitigating supply disruptions, one could envision an SPR that is used as a price management tool—a way of moderating price spikes that are costly to consumers. The United States could also lean on the SPR as a more robust foreign policy tool—offering allies access to U.S. stocks to insulate them from coercive threats involving energy, or in exchange for other foreign policy concessions.

Another reason to expand the review is simply that, with a net worth of somewhere between $40 and $60 billion (depending on the price of oil), the SPR is a nontrivial asset. As with any investment of this magnitude, policymakers should weigh the SPR’s current utility against whether there are cheaper ways of providing security against disruptions in crude oil supply. In addition, these various approaches for the SPR must be reevaluated within the context of today’s relative energy abundance from the U.S. shale boom. As just one example, suppose policymakers were to significantly downsize or liquidate the Reserve, directing the revenue and savings generated toward energy efficiency investments that permanently reduced U.S. oil demand. Whether repurposing SPR assets into these or similar investments makes economic or strategic sense depends on several variables. The point is merely that energy investments are not currently considered in this way; if they were, it could offer powerful new rationales for game-shifting investments in U.S. energy infrastructure.  

And the larger point is simply that the Reserve can only wear so many hats. Whatever one’s goals for the SPR, Washington’s current management approach—ad-hoc and too often selling off stocks when prices are low, only to replenish stocks when prices are high—is hardly a winning strategy for achieving any of them.

Harris is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Dorey, also with the Council on Foreign Relations, serves as a research associate.