The international policy responses to the supply disruptions and price spikes created by the OPEC oil embargo in 1973 and 1974 included the creation of the International Energy Agency. The IEA is an intergovernmental organization whose 31 members, including the United States, develop coordinated plans and policies among IEA members for emergency responses to energy crises.

Strategic petroleum stockpiles are one policy included in the Agency’s International Energy Program (IEP). IEA members and IEP signatories, including the United States, have committed to hold petroleum reserves equivalent to at least ninety days of their respective net petroleum imports—their imports minus their exports.

In 1975, to fulfill our obligations as a signatory to the IEP, Congress passed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act authorizing creation of the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve and its management by the Department of Energy. The reserve is comprised of underground salt caverns located in Texas and Louisiana along the Gulf Coast.

The Secretary of Energy uses a variety of market transactions to acquire petroleum for the Reserve. Filling began in 1977, and in 2009 the Reserve held its full capacity of 727 million barrels.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that the Reserve held approximately 358 million barrels, less than half its capacity and its lowest level in forty years. This is largely because President Biden, anticipating the disruption of Russian oil flows and a surge of prices because of the invasion of Ukraine, ordered in 2021 and 2022 the most aggressive withdrawals from the Reserve in its fifty-year history: over 200 million barrels.

Critics of the president have questioned those withdrawals and voiced concern that such a depletion of the Reserve poses a serious threat to our national security should, for example, the conflict in the Middle East escalate and disrupt international supplies. Are such criticisms justified? What statutory authority does the president have to order withdrawals? When have presidents ordered withdrawals and for what reasons?

International petroleum markets have changed greatly since the 1970s when the U.S. was extremely dependent on imports from the Middle East. Domestic production has soared because of the fracking revolution. In 2023, the U.S. was the leading oil producer in the world, and this year we are producing more oil than any country in history. U.S. private commercial stocks of crude oil and petroleum products have grown enormous, currently totaling over 1.23 billion barrels. As a result of soaring domestic production, the U.S. has become a consistent net exporter of crude oil and petroleum products.

In light of these dramatic developments since the 1970s, what role should the Strategic Petroleum Reserve now play in our national energy security policy? I joined the Federalist Society’s Regulatory Transparency Project for its Explainer Podcast Episode 66, where I discuss these questions and provide additional information on the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The podcast can be found here.

Note from the Editor: The Federalist Society takes no positions on particular legal and public policy matters. Any expressions of opinion are those of the author. We welcome responses to the views presented here. To join the debate, please email us at [email protected].