On reserve: 727 million barrels of crude oil

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    Strategic Petroleum Reserve oil is stored in underground salt caverns. This bottle shows how the crude floats on top of briny water.

    - frankrelle.com

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    As thrilling as it might sound (or at least it sounded to this reporter) to visit the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the truth is when you get there there's not much to see. It's all hidden underground.

    - frankrelle.com

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    To go on site at the Strategic Petroleum Reserve you have to go through rigorous security, and guards patrol all during the visit.

    - frankrelle.com

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    The Strategic Petroleum Reserve at Bayou Choctaw is surrounded by swamp. Water birds and alligators make it their home.

    - frankrelle.com

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    Each salt cavern holds about 10 million barrels of crude oil, enough to fill 20 full-size tanker ships. All you see are these valves on the surface, surrounded by fencing and motion sensors.

    - frankrelle.com

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    Pipes carry crude oil into and out of the salt caverns at Bayou Choctaw, running half a mile under the earth.

    - frankrelle.com

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    A guard with assault rifle checks the area where oil would leave the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and head out into U.S. via pipeline.

    - frankrelle.com

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    The salt caverns hold sweet or sour crude oil. Sweet crude is more valuable, easier to refine into gasoline and other products.

    - Frank Relle

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    Suresh Sevak is the site leader for the Department of Energy at the Bayou Choctaw facility.

    - frankrelle.com

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    Sam Washington is a Department of Energy worker at Bayou Choctaw. He likes the charm of its swampy setting.

    - frankrelle.com

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    Robert Templet is a foreman at the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. He's worked there 35 years, and he loves being a "pump man" who gets the oil out to the people.

    - frankrelle.com

Pipes run all across the Bayou Choctaw site, in and out of salt caverns, to and from pipelines, to let workers fill and empty the vast underground storage spaces.

A guard with assault rifle checks the area where oil would leave the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and head out into U.S. via pipeline.

The Strategic Petroleum Reserve is not simply a concept. It's a real place. Four places, in fact - two in Texas and two in Louisiana - that hold more than 700 million barrels of crude oil. I drove up to one of them, Bayou Choctaw, expecting, well, something dramatic. But all you really see is a sign and a gate at the end of a dusty Louisiana highway. All the interesting looking stuff - the cooling towers and tall pipes with flames burning at the end - that all belongs to oil and gas companies actively producing product for market. What belongs to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, though, is the fleet of Land Rovers that pulls up at the first sight of you at the gate. Guards hop out in bulletproof vests, assault rifles at the ready. It takes half an hour to get through security, and the sign-in form asks you to declare your citizenship. The oil here's worth about $7 billion. "No wonder we're protecting it, right?" says Suresh Sevak, the Department of Energy site leader at Bayou Choctaw. "A lot of people even in the local area don't know that we exist here." Forgive the locals for paying no mind to this epic stockpile in their back yard. They can't see all that crude. No one can. "Most people wonder. 'Where's the oil?" Sevak says. "Well the oil is underground. Not much to see above. Which is the way we like it." Buried deep and sealed off, the oil is easier to protect. It gets pumped down into manmade salt caverns. To picture them, first think of a cross section of the Gulf Coast' About half a mile down are thick deposits of salt that run half a mile deeper from there. The Department of Energy drills down into the salt, and shoots in water to dissolve a huge hole, explains James Quern, director of field operations for the reserve. "When the cavern's ready, then we'll take oil and push that oil into that cavern, and displace the brine back out to the gulf," he says. Each cavern is about twice as deep as a skyscraper is tall and holds about 10 million barrels of oil, 20 full-size tankers worth. And the oil just sits there, really - year in, year out - while contractors keep an eye on it, and test the pipes and pumps to make sure they'll work when needed. Danny Miller was running a small construction crew during my visit: "I think knowing that we have these kind of facilities in the United States and everything, it can put us somewhat at rest," Miller says. Me: "You sleep easy at night knowing we have these caverns full of oil?"  "Well, easier than knowing we don't have any, you know," he answers. Easier than, say, 1973. The oil crisis. Eleven Arab countries cut off all oil shipments to the United States. President Nixon told the nation, "We are heading toward the most acute shortages of energy since World War II." It was not Nixon, but the next president, Gerald Ford, who signed a law to create The Strategic Petroleum Reserve, to be tapped in case of an international disruption in supply. "It was like, 'Oh, my god,'" says Sam Washington, a Department of Energy engineer at Bayou Choctaw. "We can't let this happen again. We're going to get us a reserve."
Watch a short video animation to see how the Strategic Petroleum Reserve works.
He shows me the maps, with dots and lines running from Strategic Petroleum Reserve sites to nearby oil refineries, then to bigger pipelines all the way up to Detroit. The reserve is a sleepy place to work, compared with its neighbors. Oil, gas and chemical refineries rise like science fiction castles all around it. But when the President calls to release oil, like he did last June, or refineries need to borrow oil in an emergency like after Hurricane Katrina, all eyes are on Bayou Choctaw. "We roll with it," says Robert Templet, a pump foreman. I ask him if it's a good day when you get that call. "I like it," Templet says. "You know if they tell me to draw down right now, I'm ready. I love running the pumps. That's just me, I'm a pump man." You know who else gets really really excited? Oil traders. "As soon as they announce a release, just seconds later prices will start to plummet," says Blake Clayton. He follows oil for the Council on Foreign Relations. "If you had anticipated that, you'd be in a really good spot." Even though, honestly, it's not that much oil. Even the 30 million barrels released from the strategic reserve last year is about what America uses in a day. After the initial trading frenzy from a release, it dawns on oil traders that the government did that for a reason. A strategic release means something's wrong. "It can actually instill greater fears in traders about where supply and demand are," Clayton says. Beyond the armed guards at Bayou Choctaw, pipelines criss-cross the marsh. White ibis and egrets feed and groom. A baby alligator lazes in the water. Site supervisor Suresh Sevak likes it out here, thinking about the vast pools of oil below. But he says it's foolish to think the reserve could bring down gas prices for very long. "The days of cheap oil are gone," Sevak says. "We're not going to see that anymore." The point of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and his job, isn't to make sure oil is cheap. It's to make sure there's oil at all.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

Pipes run all across the Bayou Choctaw site, in and out of salt caverns, to and from pipelines, to let workers fill and empty the vast underground storage spaces.

A guard with assault rifle checks the area where oil would leave the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and head out into U.S. via pipeline.

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Ms Troeh could have worked in the facts I mentioned by checking DOE website too!

Strategic Petroleum Reserve -
Quick Facts and Frequently Asked Questions
The Strategic Petroleum Reserve is a U.S. Government complex of four sites with deep underground storage caverns created in salt domes along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coasts. The caverns have a capacity of 727 million barrels and store emergency supplies of crude oil owned by the U.S. Government.

Current inventory - Click to open inventory update window
Highest inventory - The SPR was filled to its 727 million barrel capacity on December 27, 2009; the inventory of 726.6 million barrels was the highest ever held in the SPR.

Previous inventory milestones -
2008. Prior to Hurricane Gustav coming ashore on September 1, 2008, the SPR had reached 707.21 million barrels, the highest level ever held up until that date. A series of emergency exchanges conducted after Hurricane Gustav, followed shortly thereafter by Hurricane Ike, reduced the level by 5.4 million barrels.
2005. Prior to the 2008 hurricane releases, the former record had been reached in late August 2005, just days before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Hurricane Katrina emergency releases of both crude oil sales and exchanges (loans) totaled 20.8 million barrels.
Crude oil inventory distribution -
Bryan Mound - holds 254 MMB in 20 caverns - 78 MMB sweet and 176 MMB sour.
Big Hill - holds 170.1 MMB in 14 caverns - 73 MMB sweet and 98 MMB sour.
West Hackberry - holds 228.2 MMB in 22 caverns - 120 MMB sweet and 108 MMB sour.
Bayou Choctaw - holds 73.2 MMB in 6 caverns - 22 MMB sweet and 52 MMB sour.
Current storage capacity - 727 million barrels
Fill status - The SPR completed fill on December 27, 2009 with a cargo that arrived and began to unload on Christmas Day. The cargo was 493,000 barrels of Saharan Blend, a light sweet crude that ws delivered to the Bryan Mound site.
Current days of import protection in SPR - At the current level of 696 million barrels, the SPR holds the equivalent of 80 days of import protection (based on 2012 EIA data of net petroleum imports of 8.72 MMB/D). Note: the maximum days of import protection ever held in the SPR was 118 days in 1985.
International Energy Agency requirement - 90 days of import protection (both public and private stocks). The United States fulfills its commitment with a combination of SPR stocks and industry stocks.
Average price paid for oil in the Reserve - $29.76 per barrel

Drawdown Capability

Maximum drawdown capability - 4.4 million barrels per day
Time for oil to enter U.S. market - 13 days from Presidential decision

TWH stardate 10042012 CC Kai Rysdall

How about a picture of the Land Rovers? All I saw was a Tahoe. Do they really have a fleet of Land Rovers or did you use that to make the story more sexy?

I thought the report lacked depth bec it never mentioned who paid for the oil in the SPR. Most of the oil was imported from OPEC NOC's. Nor did the reporter mention the cost of the oil in contrast to the 7 billion dollars it is supposedly worth at today' s prices . It was mentioned that the oil in one storage cavern held 10 million barrels and that it equalled 20 tankers worth of oil (those figures are wong ( didn't you mean to say and should you have said that the total oil in storage equalled 200 to 250 VLCC's?. What size tankers did you use?? It was mentioned that the oil in storage could be drawn down directly to refineries in an emergency? At what rate? in relation to daily US imported oil needs? I say these things to help the reporter do a better job when she reports on the SPR. All in all it fell short of providing an interesting picture of how the SPR relates to the oil idustry which does not care to provide private storage and intends to take advantage of US taxpayers like the bankers do while gaming the consumers for profits. I was once inside the industry and I am a logistics and trading expert. I was never a part of the industry as it was envisioned by Enron and the other corrupt oilco's that emerged in the late 80's. My advice to the reporter is to seek out the truthful experts and not rely on orthodox sources like the API which shills for the oilco's! I am MIT73 Chem E and oil trader and former Business Exec. BTW it was Carter who filled the SPR created by Ford after we in the US experienced the Oil Embargo and gas shortages of 1974.

The caverns have two wells -- one for crude and one for brine. The pipe through which brine flows goes down deeper than the oil one (nearer the bottom of the cavern), so when oil is pumped down excess brine flows up through the brine disposal well.

I don't see how pumping crude into the salt cavern will displace the brine; as the introductory image shows, oil floats on (salty) water. I know a little chemistry, so I must be missing something.

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