What is the Strategic Petroleum Reserve?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

The Strategic Petroleum Reserve is the US Government's emergency petroleum supply. It would be used if the United States could not import crude oil from overseas for some reason, such as an oil embargo, naval blockade, nuclear war, or something equally dire. The Strategic Petroleum Reserve contains about 700 million barrels of oil. At $125 US Dollars (USD) a barrel, its market value is over $88 billion USD.

Two of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve sites are located in Louisiana.
Two of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve sites are located in Louisiana.

As the United States imports about 12 million barrels of oil a day, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve has a supply for the entire country about two months. However, only about 4 million barrels a day could be pumped out of the reserve, so it actually has enough petroleum for half a year, though as it stands, it could only fulfill a third of national petroleum requirements. Studies are not available as to the effects this would have on the economy of the United States, but it would undoubtedly be bad.

The Strategic Petroleum Reserve was established in 1975 after the 1973-74 oil embargo, which sent gas prices through the roof and caused lines many blocks long for gas stations. Since 1975, and especially recently, with the rising cost of oil, the United States has been investing in alternative energy sources to one day achieve independence from foreign oil. Possibilities include plug-in hybrid automobiles and the use of fuel cells and biofuels.

Physically, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve consists of four sites on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. They are subterranean salt domes that have been drained of water and filled with oil. The sites include Bryan Mound in Freeport, Texas (254 million barrels), Big Hill in Winnie, Texas (160 million barrels), West Hackberry in Lake Charles, Louisiana (227 million barrels), and Bayou Choctaw in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (76 million barrels). A future site is planned at Richton, Mississippi, with a capacity of 160 million barrels. All except the Baton Rogue reserve have a drawdown capacity of above a million barrels a day, ranging to 1.5 million barrels a day for the Big Hill and Bryan Mound sites.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments


@Spinner - There has been recent talk of tapping the Reserve to combat rising American gas prices because of the Middle East turmoil. But I think the last time we actually used it was during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.


Can anybody tell the last time the SPR was tapped? I have an essay due on this next week and I'm really coming up short on sources. Does anybody have any information?


@CoffeeGirl85 - It is cheaper and the pressure and temperature difference below ground help maintain the quality of the oil and guard against leaks. Natural pressure from the Earth's interior is strong enough to seal leaks. Pretty amazing!


How interesting -- I had no idea that the whole process was so involved. Just one question -- why do they use salt domes?

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