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Question of the Day
Kevin Book, managing director of ClearView Energy Partners, noted that it was the first time the world’s strategic reserves have been used to try to counter a global slowdown as well as surprise and discourage speculators in the oil market who were betting on further rises in oil prices.
“That’s a big change,” he told Platts Energy Week, predicting that the move will leave more cash in consumer hands to spend and boost the economy while also lowering the bill that governments pay for fuel. That helps the U.S. and other nations cut their budgets. The U.S. Defense Department, for example, is the world’s largest single consumer of oil.
The economic and budgetary effects of the move “may be the biggest reason for doing it,” Mr. Book said. But he nevertheless criticized it as “a really dumb idea,” like “selling your insurance policy to go gambling,” because the reserves were established to provide a buffer in times of national emergency.
Another reason for the move, he noted, is that the world is facing a particularly acute shortage of the kind of light, sweet crude produced by Libya — which is the same kind of crude stored in the U.S. strategic reserves in Texas and Louisiana in underground salt formations.
“There’s a quality problem,” that was causing particularly high prices for scarce premium crude, and that could have been resolved in only two ways, he said: either by securing peace in Libya so it can resume its oil exports, or building more complex and expensive refineries that have the capacity to turn heavy, sour crude produced by Saudi Arabia and other nations into the clean, premium grades of gasoline needed in the U.S. and other countries.
Since building refineries can take years, Western nations opted for the quick fix of releasing premium crude from reserves.
“The big question is how long do you want to keep injecting high-quality oil at great security and financial expense into the global system to keep this artificial effect of supplying that high-quality oil in place,” Mr. Book said.
Randa Fahmy Hudome, a consultant and former U.S. Department of Energy official, said the U.S. initiated the move to release strategic reserves, even though the shortage of Libyan crude has been felt most acutely in Europe. The U.S. is providing half of the 60-million-barrel release.
“The United States is really driving this with secret, behind the scenes diplomatic discussions to try to get producers to increase production,” she told Platts. “And when that didn’t happen, it launched a lobbying effort to have the IEA match us here in the United States with the 30 million release.”
The White House has clear political motivations, she added. U.S. oil terminals, which already are well-supplied compared with European terminals, will be flooded with oil at the height of the summer driving season, putting a substantial damper on prices.
“President Obama, going into the 2012 election, realizes one of the biggest factors in the economic downturn is gas prices,” Ms. Hudome said. “Consumers are very unhappy about that.”
But she questioned whether the release will have a lasting impact on oil prices. The IEA has indicated that it may release more oil if shortages continue and prices escalate again.
Barclay’s Mr. Horsnell said the release could backfire by angering oil producers and, in particular, making Saudi Arabia more reluctant to increase production to make up for the shortfall of Libyan oil.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest producer and the one with the most spare capacity, has not reacted publicly to the release of reserves, but other OPEC members — led by Iran — have objected and demanded that it be stopped.
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