CHOCTAW BAYOU, La. — It looks like a gravel parking lot built in the middle of a swamp. Only a little complex of pipes in the corner hints at its purpose: to protect America from ever again falling victim to an oil embargo.
Underground is oil--millions and millions of barrels of oil here and elsewhere. Enough oil to equal 90 days' worth of imports if there were a total cutoff of foreign oil, which accounts for more than a third of the oil America uses.
Ten years ago, in response to the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the United States started to protect itself from another oil shock by stockpiling petroleum for emergency use.
Congress in 1975 authorized a 1-billion-barrel cushion. Later it decided that was too ambitious, so it cut the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to 750 million barrels.
So far, more than 530 million barrels have been put away, at a cost of $15 billion, in the vast underground salt domes along the Texas and Louisiana coast. Some of the storage caverns extend a mile beneath the surface of the Earth.
If the word ever comes to flood the market with oil--to drown panic and fears of idle factories and gasoline lines resulting from a new embargo--the Strategic Petroleum Reserve would come into play, making its awesome existence felt wherever oil is used or pumped.
Someone like Alberta Thomas might be the person controlling the floodgates.
She would type commands into a computer console in an always-locked control room in a modest brick office building in St. James, 37 miles from Bayou Choctaw. That would open the valves to start the flow.
Thomas, an oil industry veteran, works for Boeing Petroleum Services, a subsidiary of the aerospace firm and operator of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve under contract with the Energy Department.
She works at the government-owned St. James Terminal, connected to three major pipelines and its own two tanker berths on the Mississippi River in the sugar cane fields halfway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
The terminal, which can store 2 million barrels in six large white above-ground tanks, is also connected to Bayou Choctaw and another nearby underground salt dome where some of the oil is kept. Four other storage sites serve other pipelines and two private tanker terminals.
All told, the three terminals could dispatch 3 million barrels a day, roughly half the current rate of imports. If the reserve could displace imports entirely, it would last almost three months; at the maximum pumping rate, it would last almost six months.
The dispatch capacity is being raised gradually to 4.5 million barrels a day and the reserve is to reach the goal of holding 750 million barrels by the middle of the 1990s.
"I'm hoping we don't have to do it," Thomas said. But if the word should come down, "I think it'll be a star for us."
Operations manager Scott Landry said the importance of the reserve is underscored by recent events in the Persian Gulf--the U.S. decision to escort reflagged Kuwaiti tankers, and the threat of Iranian mines.
Many Americans are unaware of the existence of the reserve. Only three reporters have visited the site since May, 1986. Frank Lemoine, site manager at St. James, said neighbors "haven't been paying any more attention."
The senior Energy Department representative at the New Orleans headquarters, project manager John Wagoner, said he is not even getting much attention from Washington.
Though there has never been a security threat, the commercial guard service presents constant reminders. Briefcases must be opened. Visitors must be escorted. Guards do their best to look intimidating, with .357-caliber Magnums prominently strapped low on their thighs.
After the 1983 truck bombing of the U.S. Marine compound in Lebanon, all sites were provided with what the staff calls "Jersey bounces," concrete dividers that force traffic to slow in a slalom pattern at the gate.
The oil is safe, engineers believe--safe from terrorists, safe from natural disasters.
Except for some in a former salt mine, it is in gigantic cylindrical caverns that engineers have leached from the rock-hard salt formations by water injection, starting about 3,000 feet below the surface and extending to 5,000 feet.
Using technology familiar in the industry for decades, the engineers pump water into the dome and pump it out again as brine, leaving behind a cylindrical cavity big enough to hold 10 million barrels. There are several cavities to each site.
Choctaw Bayou site manager Ronald Chase says that, if a saboteur wrecked the pipes, the cavern would lose only 30,000 to 50,000 barrels of oil before cavern pressure would fall to zero and the flow would stop. Dikes around the gravel pad would catch the spill.
Fire could be a greater danger. The reserve buys only high-quality crude, and it will burn readily. New foam systems are being installed at the St. James tanks.
Oil Would Be Sold