The U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve was set up in the 1970s as an emergency source of oil in the event of unexpected supply disruptions. When Donald Trump took office as president in January 2017, the reserve held 695.1 million barrels of crude oil. The last full week before he left office in January 2021, it held 638.1 million barrels, or about 8% less.
But Trump falsely claimed that before his presidency, the reserve had been “mostly empty” for decades and that he had restored it to “100% full.”
Trump made the claim in a March 31 statement that was posted to the website of his leadership political action committee, Save America, and emailed to its list of subscribers. The former president spoke critically of President Joe Biden’s announcement that his administration plans to release 1 million barrels of crude oil per day from the reserve for the next six months as part of efforts to lower oil and gasoline prices. That’s in addition to the 30 million barrels the U.S. had previously pledged to release from the reserve to increase the global supply in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“So after 50 years of being virtually empty, I built up our oil reserves during my administration, and low energy prices, to 100% full,” Trump’s statement reads. “It’s called the Strategic National Reserves, and it hasn’t been full for many decades. In fact, it’s been mostly empty. It’s supposed to only be used for large-scale emergency or conflict. Now I see where Biden has just announced he’s going to take what we so carefully and magically built, and what will be a futile attempt to reduce oil and gasoline prices. They will soon bring it down to empty again.”
Except the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, or SPR, contained more crude oil at the time Trump entered the White House than it did when he exited.
As we’ve written before, the SPR was created when then-President Gerald Ford signed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, which was in response to energy shortages created by the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo. The reserve is currently authorized to hold up to 714 million barrels of crude oil across four storage sites along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coasts, according to the Department of Energy, which maintains the reserve.
But not since the early 1980s has the reserve held less than even half of that amount. In fact, for a 29-month stretch between April 2009 and July 2011, SPR crude oil stocks exceeded the current 714 million barrels threshold — reaching a high of more than 726.6 million barrels, when the authorized capacity was 727 million barrels.
Furthermore, the oil stocks were at 695.1 million barrels for the week ending Jan. 20, 2017, which was the same day that Trump was sworn in as president. The supply declined almost weekly from that point on, until the reserve had about 638.1 million barrels on hand as of the week ending Jan. 15, 2021. That was five days before Biden was inaugurated.
Trump did propose buying an additional 77 million barrels of oil to add to the reserve in March 2020. But the funding for the proposal, which was to be included as part of a COVID-19 stimulus package, was blocked by congressional Democrats, who called it a “$3 billion bailout” for the oil industry.
Reserve oil stocks have continued to decline under Biden. As of the week ending March 25, the SPR had about 568.3 million barrels of crude available. The Energy Information Administration says that reserve oil stocks have been declining in recent years due to legislation authorizing drawdowns.
However, Trump was wrong to say that the reserve is “supposed to only be used for large-scale emergency or conflict.”
“SPR releases of crude oil can occur under four conditions: emergency drawdowns, test sales, exchange agreements, and nonemergency sales,” the EIA said in a March 8 post about the U.S. commitment to release 30 million barrels of oil as part of an international agreement with 30 other countries.
The EIA noted that the announced release was the first emergency drawdown since 2011, when the U.S. and other members of the International Energy Agency released a combined 60 million barrels in response to supply disruptions in Libya. The Department of Energy keeps track of the sales and releases on its website.
Senior Biden administration officials told reporters that the revenue from the upcoming sale of the released oil will be used to restock the reserve when oil prices drop.
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