As Oil Prices Soar, Where's the Congressional Outrage?

As the price of crude oil breaks $100 per barrel, the highest price since 2008, Americans are sure to feel the impact in their pocketbooks, which is why it's all the more strange that not a single member of Congress appears to have called on the Obama administration to either halt stockpiles into the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve or to release some of the reserves into the system. There appear to be no calls for a gas tax holiday, either, or any other immediate legislative remedy that has, in the past, been trumpeted in the face of soaring oil prices.

Back in 2008, as prices jumped above the $100 mark, lawmakers of all stripes came together to force the Bush Administration to halt stockpiling into the government reserve, a 1970's era creation after the oil embargo. This time around, so far - radio silence. Crickets. Where's the outrage?

"We can't immediately think of any House or Senate member who is calling for a release of oil from the SPR," said Bill Wicker, spokesman for the Senate Energy Committee. The panel, chaired by Sen. Jeff Bingaman did hold a hearing recently on the energy outlook at which the New Mexico Democrat did note, "Fortunately, it appears unlikely that the political turmoil will result in major disruptions in oil production or transportation. That's my impression, at least at this time. However, I note that whenever geopolitical events remind us of our vulnerability to world oil supply disruptions, it is a spur for us to consider energy policies that help to reduce that vulnerability."

Wicker also told Fox, "In addition to closely and carefully monitoring the situations in Africa/Middle East and in world oil markets, (the committee) is continuing to consider all of its legislative and oversight options."

Still, by this time in 2008, e-mail inboxes were filling up with members calling for all varieties of remedies. Democrats and Republicans were releasing energy packages loaded up with ways to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil. It was the subject of speeches and promises on the presidential campaign trail. Who could forget: "Drill, baby, drill!" That came in September when oil prices were at about $108 a barrel, according to Energy Department statistics.

Then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, in the midst of the presidential campaign, called for a gas tax holiday to ease costs, but it fell on deaf ears. Senate Democratic leaders left it out of energy legislation they introduced at the time. Then GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called for a similar summer gas tax holiday from Memorial Day to Labor Day in a speech in Pittsburgh. It was on a day when oil prices soared past $113 per barrel.

In April 2008, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-ND, who recently retired, introduced legislation to force a halt in SPR stockpiles until oil prices dropped to $75 a barrel, legislation that would later be approved by Congress. The per barrel price of oil was just over $100 then. Chairman Bingaman, at the time a cosponsor of Dorgan's bill, said the the department, by law, was to avoid excessive costs and minimize expenses, adding, "It seems odd to be spending a half-billion taxpayer dollars on an activity that will keep oil prices high."

Then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., released a statement saying, "By suspending deliveries to the (SPR) we can save consumers from 5 to 24 cents per gallon. This is a critical first step for Americas families, businesses and our economy and, as the President said in 2006 when talking about the impact of suspending deliveries to the SPR, every little bit helps."

"While there is no guarantee that putting this oil onto the market rather than into the SPR will lower prices, even the modest step of suspending such acquisitions for the time being could potentially prick the speculative bubble now characterizing oil markets," said then-House Energy and Commerce Chairman John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, as Congress approved the bill.

One key Republican who changed her view, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, then a member of leadership. "The SPR had 554 million barrels when President Bush took office and today it has over 701 million barrels," Hutchison said during floor debate. "We are in an extreme circumstance, now that oil is around $120 a barrel. I support an immediate halt in the deposits of domestic crude into the SPR as we enter the busiest driving season of the year."

President Bush opposed the move saying it would have little impact on overall prices and could jeopardize national security in the event of a major supply disruption; nevertheless, the White House, heading off the Congressional mandate, abruptly announced a halt to stockpiling for the rest of the year.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) on its website says, "The Strategic Petroleum Reserve exists, first and foremost, as an emergency response tool the President can use should the United States be confronted with an economically-threatening disruption in oil supplies." It was created in 1975 after the oil embargo.

Only twice in recent history has the SPR been tapped in an emergency by a president, once in 1991 by President H. W. Bush during the Gulf War when an emergency sale was ordered, and another time in September 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit. Several times in the 1990's, however, President Clinton, with approval from Congress, ordered the non-emergency sale of reserve oil, a number of times to reduce the federal budget deficit.

Perhaps members are bogged down at the moment with the looming shutdown of the federal government if a compromise is not reached on this year's between Senate Democrats and House Republicans. Maybe they are distracted by the week-long President's Day recess. Or perhaps some are more hopeful after the recent forecast from the Energy Information Agency, the independent arm of DOE, that predicted U.S. consumption of imported oil for the next 25 years is expected to decline with the advent of alternative energy products like biofuels and with the manufacturing of more efficient vehicles.

Still, that won't stop prices from rising right now.

And one note on the SPR front from Wicker, "DOE already is planning a 6 million barrel SPR sale in the FY 2012 budget. That's a lot of barrels." We'll see if Congress keeps that sale alive when it attempts to codify the president's budget later this year.