Joe Biden and the 'Impossible' Task of Refilling America's Oil Reserves

Six months into admin's 'replenishment strategy,' Biden has purchased zero reserve barrels

President Joe Biden makes the zero sign (Getty Images)
May 20, 2023

President Joe Biden in December began working to replenish the 180 million barrels he sold last year from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Nearly six months later, he still has zero barrels to show for it.

Biden's Energy Department on Monday announced its intention to purchase up to three million reserve barrels as a "continuation" of the president's "replenishment strategy." So far, however, that "strategy" has seen the Democrat fail to purchase a single barrel of reserve oil. The administration first tried to purchase three million reserve barrels in December, when Biden kicked off his "plan to replenish the SPR." One month later, Biden's Energy Department revealed it had rejected all offers it received to purchase the oil because those offers "were either too expensive or didn't meet the required specifications."

Republicans have hammered Biden for his management of the reserves, which sit at their lowest levels in four decades after the Democrat last year sold 180 million reserve barrels in an attempt to lower gas prices ahead of a difficult midterm election. While Biden responded by pledging to "refill" the reserves with oil his administration would purchase this year, the Democrat has so far made no progress. If Biden's Energy Department does manage to fulfill its recently announced purchase plan, the oil would be delivered to the reserves in August, meaning Biden would have secured just three million reserve barrels in eight months. At that pace, it would take the Democrat 40 years to procure the 180 million barrels he sold.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, whose office did not return a request for comment, has confirmed that the administration will be unable to refill the reserve to the levels Biden inherited. "We will begin that process this year, but to refill the full amount is impossible," Granholm admitted in March. For Wyoming's John Barrasso, who serves as the top Republican on the Senate Energy Committee, that answer is unacceptable.

"Joe Biden treats the Strategic Petroleum Reserve like a political piggy bank instead of a critical piece of American energy security," Barrasso told the Washington Free Beacon. "He has no real plan to refill it. America has never been more vulnerable to a true energy emergency because of President Biden."

Facing the "impossible" task of refilling the reserve to its past levels—the stock held 638 million barrels of oil when Biden took office and now holds just 362 million—Biden's Energy Department is now channeling its replenishment efforts toward a more modest goal. The department in May touted its "significant progress toward replenishment," citing its role in canceling congressionally mandated sales that would have seen the department sell 140 million reserve barrels between 2024 and 2027. As a result, the department says, the reserve will be effectively replenished by 2027—not because the barrels Biden sold will have been bought back, but rather because the reserve will save barrels thanks to the canceled sales.

"This cancellation … will allow the SPR to have the same number of barrels in reserve by the end of FY 2027 that it would have had emergency barrels not been sold in 2022," the department said.

Oil prices sit at $72 a barrel, and the Biden administration hopes to purchase reserve oil at anywhere between $67 to $72 a barrel. Republicans tried to fill the reserve to its capacity in the spring of 2020—when a barrel of oil cost as low as $15—but Senate Democrats blocked the plan, attacking it as a "bailout for big oil."

Biden went on to sell a historic number of reserve barrels in 2022, when the average price for a gallon of gas exceeded $5 in the United States for the first time ever. Millions of those barrels were sent overseas—Biden even sold nearly one million U.S. reserve barrels to a Chinese state-controlled gas giant, the Free Beacon reported last year, a sale that came as America's top adversary scrambled to build up its own stockpile of oil.

The White House aggressively defended that sale, with spokesman Ian Sams accusing Republicans who criticized it of "lying" and "pushing false conspiracies about the president." In January, however, 113 House Democrats backed a GOP measure that barred the United States from selling its oil reserves to China.

Biden's lack of progress on filling the reserve will likely attract additional congressional scrutiny as Republicans express concern that the depleted stockpile hurts America's national security.

"Instead of creating pro-growth energy policies that would make the United States energy independent once again, President Biden has consistently raided the [Strategic Petroleum Reserve] to obtain his long-term Green New Deal climate agenda," Texas Republican congressman Wesley Hunt told the Free Beacon. "Russia and the Ukraine remain engaged in a deadly war while China is saber-rattling against Taiwan. Now is not the time for Joe Biden to be playing fast and loose with our nation's oil reserves."