Is tapping our emergency oil supply a mistake?

The Obama administration is uncorking America's oil reserves in an international effort to drive down energy prices — at least for a short while

The Strategic Petroleum Reserve in Bryan Mound, Texas: The Obama administration will tap into the oil reserve in an effort to drive down gas prices.
(Image credit: DONNA W. CARSON/Reuters/Corbis)

The Obama administration will release 30 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve — half of the 60-million-barrel release coordinated by the International Energy Agency (IEA) to make up for losses in Mideast supplies. The news sent oil prices down about 5 percent on Thursday. The SPR, which currently holds a record 727 million barrels, has only been tapped a few times since its creation in 1974. Does the war in Libya and other oil-disrupting unrest in the Middle East merit tapping America's emergency supply?

No. This sets a risky precedent: Obama's decision to uncork our oil reserves now is "totally mystifying," says Barb Arrigo in the Detroit Free Press. The apparent rationale is that high oil prices will cripple the global economy, but gas prices have already been falling for weeks. And even if this helps us, it sets a worrisome precedent that the SPR should be tapped for economic reasons, "rather than solely for emergencies that affect supply more sharply than the fighting in Libya has."

"Pouring oil on troubled (economic?) waters"

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Plus, it probably won't help much: The IEA and White House tried to get OPEC to step up production, and only acted when Iran, Venezuela, and Libya quashed that effort, says Bryan Walsh at TIME. Tapping the reserves is one of the few tools we have left. But 2 million extra barrels a day for one month is a very short-term economic fix, and "60 million barrels worth of band-aids" is no cure for rising demand from China and our lack of a smart energy policy.

"The White House releases oil.... Is that strategic?"

Actually, Obama's making a smart gamble: "The critics are absolutely right" about the long-term futility of dipping into our reserves, says Andrew Leonard at Salon. But adding 60 million barrels to the global supply will have an outsize influence on oil prices this summer, offering "some relief at the gas pump at exactly the moment prices usually rise." And if Libya gets stable enough to restart up its oil wells relatively soon, this will be "exactly the kind of temporary measure the situation demanded."

"Obama's smart oil move"

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