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Just Explain It: What is the Strategic Petroleum Reserve?

Eliminating America's dependency on foreign oil has been a policy goal for at least the last two U.S. Presidents. According to the International Energy Agency, by 2020, the U.S. will overtake Saudi Arabia as the world's number one oil producer.

However, there's still some work to do. The United States Energy Information Administration reported that 45% of the petroleum consumed by the U.S. in 2011 was from foreign countries. Even though the country is well on its way to becoming self reliant, there's always a chance we could hit a major bump in the road. The good thing is we have protection. It's called the Strategic Petroleum Reserve or S.P.R.

So here's how the S.P.R. works:

The reserve was created after the 1973 energy crisis when an Arab oil embargo halted exports to the United States. As a result, fuel shortages caused disruptions in the U.S. economy.

The reserves are located underground in four man-made salt domes in Texas and Louisiana. All four locations combined hold a total of 727 million barrels of oil. The inventory is currently at 695 million barrels. That's around 80 days of import protection. It's the largest emergency oil supply in the world -- it's worth about $63 billion.

Only the President has the ability to tap the reserves in case of severe energy supply interruption. It's happened three times. Twice within the last decade. In 2005, President Bush ordered the emergency sale of 11 million barrels when Hurricane Katrina shutdown 25 percent of domestic production. In 2011, President Obama ordered the release of 30 million barrels to help offset disruptions caused by political upheaval in the Middle East.

Following the release order, the reserve issues a notice of sale to solicit competitive offers. In the most recent sale involving the Obama administration, the offers resulted in contracts with 15 companies for delivery of 30.6 million barrels of oil. To put that in context, last year the U.S. consumed almost seven billion barrels of oil — that's 19 million per day -- or about 22% of the world's consumption.

Related Link: Using the Strategic Petroleum Reserve Like a Spigot

The release in 2011 had little effect on the price of gas at the pump. Consumers paid about 2% less for a week before the prices began to climb again.

Related link: Just Explain It: Why Social Security is Running Out of Money

Did you learn something? Do you have a topic you'd like explained? Give us your feedback in the comments below or on Twitter using #justexplainit.

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