Legislation to halt deposits to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve may be the most popular initiative from Congress this year. But it's a bad economic bet, bad for national security and gives the American public the false impression that lawmakers are actually doing something about skyrocketing gasoline prices. President Bush should veto the bill -- even though Congress passed legislation by huge margins Tuesday and could actually override his veto.
It may seem logical for the government to try to decrease demand for oil and thus prices by not buying roughly 70,000 barrels a day to deposit in the strategic reserve. In fact, according to the Department of Energy, the amount being stockpiled amounts to just 0.1% of global daily oil consumption. The net effect at U.S. gas pumps of temporarily halting reserve purchases would be close to nil.
One might argue that the effect on America's ability to withstand an energy crisis is also just about nil. At the moment, the reserve holds about 703 million barrels, enough for about 58 days at current consumption levels. That's a mighty meager rainy-day larder for a nation as addicted to oil as the United States. And that's why Congress, in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, directed that the strategic reserve be expanded to 1 billion barrels. That's still meager, but it would give us a bit more time to respond to a significant interruption of oil supplies.