At four different sites along the Gulf of Mexico sit millions of barrels of petroleum. Oil, if you will, locked away for a rainy day. At last count the number was 695.9 million barrels of the black gold, enough to last the U.S. about 34 days at current levels of consumption.
That’s what it is. The question is, should we use it?
You needn’t be a daily driver to know that gas prices have lately been creeping up. On the one hand, this sort of thing happens occasionally, and isn’t such a huge deal. The speculators drive up the global cost of oil and companies like Shell, Exxon or Texaco, to name three, pass along the heightened cost to we consumers. Get used to it. On the other hand, though, it can be a major problem, especially when you consider that people have no choice but to spend more of their paychecks on gas, which sucks valuable disposable income from reviving the economy in more effective ways. So, if you’re President Obama eyeing reelection nine months from now, alarms in the White House may well be going off.
Congressional Democrats have begun asking Obama to open part of the SPR to alleviate prices at the pump. The matter is more a political issue than an economic one. Sure our economy is on stronger footing than it was a year ago: unemployment is tantalizingly close to sub-8.0 range and manufacturing is slowly bouncing back. Odds are heightened fuel costs won’t plunge us back into another Great Recession. But the problem is that if gas prices hit a record high this summer, which they’re on par to do, the issue becomes a political football to be picked up by Republicans. “Look what Obama did! Record high gas prices! Elect us instead!” A flimsy argument on its merits, but if you’re a voter feeling the pinch, it’s an argument you’d likely find pretty persuasive.
The more existential question is whether the SPR should be used for such instinctive crises. When it was created under the Energy Policy Conservation Act in 1975, its intended purpose was to counter “severe supply interruptions,” which seems to put the bar pretty high. International war. Natural disasters impeding new production. Things like that. Flinching and turning on the spigot the moment gas prices top $3.70 seems a bit more reflexive. And there’s a compelling reason not to: once gas prices fall again, if they ever do, the SPR will need to be replenished, which essentially keeps demand higher than supply, pushing prices upward again.
In our humble opinion, some of us here at Spinach HQ vote no. Sure prices are high, but if we go clawing into our survival kit every time we scrape our knee, how prepared will be when we actually break our leg? The obvious answer, of course, is not very.