Having already yelled at OPEC on several prior occasions on Twitter with demands for Saudi Arabia and the rest of the OPEC cartel to boost production in order to push oil – and gasoline – prices lower…
… only to realize that the amount of needed incremental output is next to impossible to achieve when considering the amount of Iran exports that will be curbed on November 4 when the Iran sanctions kick in officially, Trump has been left with two choice: ease off the Iran sanctions and implement them more gradually, or release oil from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
And now, with oil prices continuing to rise and pushing the price of gasoline to levels not seen in 4 years, at a critical time with November mid-term elections fast approaching, Trump appears to have decided on the latter, and is actively considering tapping into the nation’s emergency crude oil reserve, Bloomberg reported citing two people “familiar with the situation.”
While no decision has been made yet to release crude from the 660-million-barrel SPR stockade, options under review range from a 5-million-barrel test sale to a larger release of 30 million barrels. An even larger release could be possible it it were to be coordinated with other nations.
For Trump, the magic number appears to be $3 per gallon on the national level; every time regular gasoline nears that round number, Trump has been quick to voice his displeasure.
“Oil prices are too high, OPEC is at it again. Not good!” he said on Twitter last month. On the Fourth of July, Trump tweeted: “The OPEC Monopoly must remember that gas prices are up & they are doing little to help. If anything, they are driving prices higher as the United States defends many of their members for very little $’s. This must be a two way street. REDUCE PRICING NOW!”
The average national price of unleaded gasoline rose to $2.89 Friday, an increase of 63 cents from where it was a year ago, per AAA data. The U.S. gasoline price average is expected to range between $2.85 per gallon and $3.05 per gallon through Labor Day, according to the group.
Even an SPR release may not be sufficient to push prices lower, and analysts remain split on the effect such a release would have and how long it it last. Depending on its size and timing, an oil sale might leave the market unmoved, or have a real, if fleeting, impact on prices.
“I think a SPR release would have a psychological impact on the market, it may not translate into lower gasoline prices, but it would immediately bring down crude prices at least temporarily until the market adjusts,” said Joe McMonigle, senior energy analyst at Hedgeye Risk Management LLC.
A release of crude oil in September or October could cut gasoline prices for consumers ahead of November mid-term elections. Trump could also use it as a tool to persuade buyers of Iranian oil to halt their purchases in the run-up to Nov. 4, when U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Republic are due to snap back.
Having tapped the SPR on several occasions in the past two years, another draw down is looming: Congress has already mandated the sale of 11 million barrels starting as soon as Oct. 1. That would bring the total oil in inventory to just under 650mm barrels.
Others said that an SPR tap would be a logical move, if one that would have limited impact:
“I would be very surprised if they were not thinking about it,” said Kevin Book, managing director of Washington-based consultancy ClearView Energy Partners.
“The DOE must begin planning its scheduled sales months in advance, so I suspect the timing of a scheduled sale as a market-management tool probably has been on their radar screens for weeks,” Book said.
Previously, the SPR oil stockpile which was created in the aftermath of the 1973 Saudi oil embargo, was tapped by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, as well as to fund unrelated domestic legislation. And while Energy Secretary Rick Perry has said before that he has no interest in utilizing the reserve, telling reporters last month it is “there for emergencies,” ultimately the decision is up to Trump.
Unfortunately for Trump, the impact of such a move would be modest at best, as the kneejerk reaction in the oil price showed: following the news, WTI dipped modestly but has already found a floor.