The weather was hot and humid on July 21, 1977, the day the U.S. government began stockpiling oil. It started small. Just 412,000 barrels of Saudi Arabian light crude stashed in a Southeast Texas salt cavern. In the wake of the Arab oil embargo, which sent prices through the roof and forced Americans to ration gasoline, creating a national reserve seemed like an obvious way to protect U.S. consumers from global supply shocks.
“It’s hard to imagine if you weren’t there,’’ said John Herrington, the Energy secretary under President Ronald Reagan, who pushed to expand the reserve in the 1980s. “We were lining up at gas stations. We were turning down our thermostats.’’
Forty years later, the world has changed, and Washington is torn on whether the Strategic Petroleum Reserve has outlived its usefulness. The U.S. is awash in crude, imports are declining, yet the stockpile remains the largest in