WASHINGTON — Wary of a new surge in gas prices, the Obama administration has decided to release 30 million barrels of oil from the country’s emergency reserve as part of a broader international response to lost oil supplies caused by turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, particularly Libya.
The release from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve will amount to half of a 60 million barrel international infusion of oil planned for the world market over the next month.
“We are taking this action in response to the ongoing loss of crude oil due to supply disruptions in Libya and other countries and their impact on the global economic recovery,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Thursday.
White House officials would not predict how the release of the oil will affect prices at the pump, although the move is intended to increase U.S. supplies during the peak summer driving season.
The administration said the uprising in Libya has resulted in a loss of about 1.5 million barrels of oil a day. The release comes as the United States approaches a period of high energy use in July and August.
High oil prices and the resulting increase in the cost of gasoline have contributed to an economic slowdown and have put increased political pressure on President Barack Obama.
The government is wary of dipping into the petroleum reserve, releasing oil from it only in extreme cases, such as hurricanes, that affect oil supplies. The reserves — 727 million barrels stored in salt caverns along the Texas and Louisiana coasts — were created in response to the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s and last tapped in 2008 after hurricanes Gustav and Ike hit.
Oil prices dropped Thursday after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned that the U.S. economy was recovering more slowly than expected and after the International Energy Agency announced the release of 60 million barrels of oil.
Retail gasoline prices in the U.S. dropped for the 20th consecutive day to $3.61 per gallon.
A senior administration official said the president determined in a meeting with top economic advisers on April 26 that the oil supply disruptions in Libya were severe and would have a significant impact on oil prices. Obama asked aides to come up with options for opening the strategic petroleum reserves and to consult with international partners, most notably Saudi Arabia.
The official said Obama is deeply concerned about the impact the disruption in oil supplies could have on the U.S. and global economies. Obama is open to releasing more oil from U.S. reserves, the official said, though no decision on doing so has been made.
Because the U.S. oil reserves are at historic highs, holding 727 barrels, the administration felt there would be no negative long-term impact to releasing 30 million barrels at this time.
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal administration deliberations.