Leave the SPR alone already

Peakguy sent me a link to the Brattleboro Reformer this weekend, which has an article about how some Democrats are urging Bush to open the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to alleviate prices.

I thought this was just Schumer's pipe dream, but no, now Sen. Patrick Leahy of VT is advocating it too. I find this so frustrating, because it means that (some) politicians are so fundamentally uninformed about why oil prices are high right now (which Peter Maass also noted in the NYTimes piece this weekend), and delusional about how to solve the problem. Even worse, by promoting this kind of solution, they make it even harder for the public to understand what the real problem is, since it makes people think that high prices will go away just by opening up the SPR and putting a little more oil out there.

Fortunately, some politicians do seem to understand what the problem is:

"What good does it do to release oil from the reserve," said Rep. John Olver, D-Mass. "The real problem is we are using more oil every year."

Hmmm. Maybe this is a function of being in the Senate vs. the House of Representatives. Could it be that Bartlett has rubbed off on his House colleagues? Now we just need a preacher in the Senate, too.

If your senator is one of the ones calling for opening the SPR, please consider sending (a personalized version of) my letter to Schumer to your own senator. (Not that I've heard anything back from Schumer, of course.)

(This article also appeared in Energy Bulletin.)

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Remember that William Buckley recommended using the SPR, too.  I suppose it is like using your credit card when your balance is low.
While we should allow for politicians to toss bones in the direction of  all their various constituents (and Schumer and Leahy have farmers), I think we should ALL take the opportunity to send an email to the offending senators and give them a piece of our respective minds (or, in my case, what my wife describes as "what it pleases me to call my mind").  It would have been more correct for the government to offer some relief on fuel costs for small farmers, since we'll definitely need local farmers in an oil-poor future.  And this generalizes: in an oil-poor future, society will have to decide who and what activities have a higher priority for fuel.  Now, since the senators cannot yet do this (it will be possible only after peak oil / shortage is obvious even to the President), they have to rely on merely tossing out a few words.  But still, this is a perfect opportunity to send some thoughtful letters.
It's not only the farmers - both Senators are from states that use lots of Heating Oil (as opposed to NG or propane) over the winter, and as can be seen in the case of New York, HO prices are already through the roof and will make this winter very costly in the Northeast.

I have a house in the Hudson Valley, and switched from HO to propane last year.  When I made my deal for this coming winter (last week), my supplier accused me of having prophetic insight, as the moderate propane price increase is way under the significant HO increase contemplated - in fact, they haven't set the HO price yet, as they are that concerned about customer acceptance.

There may be something to this, I suppose.  I imagine that everyone here would categorize driving an SUV as wasting fuel, but try telling someone to do without heat in New England.  Yet this winter, people may end up having to do exactly that.

I know that I have always focussed on vehicles in relation to oil, but in reality getting people off of home heating oil is likely to be somewhat easier.  There aren't the technical obstacles that there are with vehicles.  I haven't even thought about what the optimum types of heating systems would be, really.

I have this idea rattling around in my brain like a loose marble - that if fuel prices reach a certain point (not sure what that point is), that governments would institute rationing in an attempt to hold down demand, and thereby control inflation.  The problem is of course that this would almost need to be instituted on an international level first or otherwise prices would never stabilize.  What would make this even harder is coming up with an equitable way determining who gets how much.  Just like everything else, people would try and figure out ways to game the system to get more than the system intended.

It may be easier to target residential heating oil, but MUCH more effective to try to change consumption patterns in transportation. This chart from the DOE shows the breakdown of oil consumption by product:

In this graph, as far as I can tell, residential and commercial heating oil is represented by the white bar in the distillate category. Overall, that's not very much, especially compared to the giant blue bar in motor gasoline.

I don't know how much proportional use has changed since 2002, but probably not too much.

It would almost certainly be true that you get more bang for the buck by targetting transportation.  I guess I am thinking that you might have elderly folks out there who don't drive much and still have oil heat, and these people are going to be in a real fix if heating oil prices go up.

For the rest of us though, vehicles are probably where we need to focus our attention.

Why worry, Eric?  Won't the market take care of these "elderly folks"? ;)

Seriously though, there's a lot of low hanging fruit in increasing a home's thermal efficiency.  Checking weather stripping on doors and replacing it where necessary is a good place to start.  Making a cheap frame out of 3/4"x3/4" wood to fit in the inside and/or outside window well, stretching and stapling clear plastic across the frame, and tacking the whole structure in place with finishing nails (so you can remove it come spring) gets you a fair buck for the bang too.  This worked surprisingly well on my basement windows.  A day later the basement was comfortable rather than chilly.  But natural gas would have to get pretty darned expensive before my wife would accept such "window treatments" on our more visible windows.

It won't change the big picture like focusing on transportation, but it's still worth doing.  I don't think a retired couple that turns off the heat in February so that they can afford March's medication is thinking much about that big picture.  (And I've consoled several members of such couples at the bus stop the last two winters.)

I don't look at this as a conservation issue, at least not with regard to the politicasl pressure to open the SPR.  It is purely and simply that all politicians in the Northeast will be under heavy pressure to "do something" about the HO pricing - imagine Murdoch outlet's  "GranMom Freezes to Death While Warming Baby in Her Arms as Hilary and Chuck Dance at New Year's Ball" and the other sensationalist stories on the local news in these markets.

HO is a minor portion of total usage, but it is a true life-and-death use.

it seems that my House Rep Markey (Mass 7th District) has recently called on Bush to release oil from the SPR.
warning: that links to a PDF

i just sent him a letter through the auto-form on his website urging him to spend some time familarizing himself more with what underlies high gas prices. hopefully he'll get the note
Check out this picture of line ups for fuel in China - supply, not prices, is what the good Senators ought to be concerned about.

(ps, good work on moving to the new site)

When I heard the call from Patrick Leahy, I also thought "These guys don't know anything."  It's distressing that only one member of either house has actually addressed the issue, and the White House, which surely knows about peak oil (via Matt Simmons if no one else), is also totally out to lunch in terms of taking leadership in educating our population about what's coming down the pike.  Same with Kerry.  It's staggering.  And it seems as though we're slip-sliding right to the edge of the cliff this year, or next at the latest.  Duh!  

One trouble with the transportation sector is --as Kunstler points out-- the physical structuring of our living arrangements demands a certain expenditure of fuel just to function (in terms of work, schooling, and shopping, plus shipping of course).  Fuel efficiency would certainly help.  But the politicians seem to be terrified of displeasing either the USA auto giants or the labor unions.  Duh!


One thing to remember about politicians: if they know that a position has superficial appeal AND will NEVER in a million years be implemented, such as a release from the SNR, it will be difficult for them to choose good policy over good politics.
Keep in mind that both Bush I and Clinton briefly allowed oil from the SPR into the market, so it's not out of the realm of possibility.