WASHINGTON — Most of Louisiana’s congressional delegation on Thursday criticized the Obama administration’s announcement that it would tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, contending that the move accentuates a failed American drilling policy.
The administration plan to tap 30 million barrels of crude from its reserve as part of a 60 million-barrel international plea to compensate for unrest in the Middle East and Libya.
“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,” U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said.
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 move comes as retail gasoline prices dropped for the 20th consecutive day, down a penny from Wednesday, to $3.61 per gallon, according to AAA, Wright Express and Oil Price Information Service. That’s about 21 cents lower than a month ago.
But most of the Louisiana delegation accused Obama of playing politics with the nation’s energy.
“The Strategic Petroleum Reserve should be used only at a time of a critical drop in supply,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, of Lafayette. “It’s for strategic reasons, not for market manipulation.”
The Louisiana delegation has been critical of the Obama administration’s policy toward oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Obama imposed a five-month ban on drilling last year after the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 men and resulted in 4.9 million barrels of oil spilling into the Gulf.
The administration has been accused by the delegation of intentionally issuing new permits at a slow pace since the ban was lifted. The decision Thursday exacerbates the clash, said U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Metairie.
“It’s an admission that the president doesn’t want to explore for energy in America,” Scalise said.
The petroleum reserve holds 727 million barrels of oil in underground salt caverns at four sites in Texas and Louisiana. The excess supply was created by Congress after the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo.
Most of the recent moves to tap into the reserve were due to Louisiana incidents. In September 2005, the Bush administration sold 11 million barrels from the reserve to aid refiners hurt by Hurricane Katrina.
In September 2008, Bush loaned 5.4 million barrels to five oil companies after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike cut supplies. In June 2006, Bush loaned 750,000 barrels to two companies after the Calcasieu Ship Channel closed and deliveries were stopped to Louisiana refineries.
Tapping into the reserve now shows that the Obama administration’s drilling policy is “one of convenience and not actual practice,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, of Baton Rouge.
“It’s a little ironic that the president and his allies are saying that increased drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf doesn’t affect oil prices, but now he’s opened up the strategic petroleum reserve to stabilize oil prices,” Cassidy said.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, of Louisiana, declined to comment on the move early Wednesday, but she issued a prepared statement questioning it.
“The United States uses 20 million barrels of oil a day,” Landrieu said. “Releasing 30 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve gives us about a day and a half of breathing room. We need less show and more drilling to bring prices down and build on the 9.5 million jobs the industry supplies already.”
U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., declined to comment on the Obama move but also issued a statement linking it to Obama’s recent call to Brazil for more oil production.
“As long as they continue to virtually shut down energy exploration here at home, this opening of the reserve will do absolutely nothing to help our long-term supply problem, and it certainly won’t put the Gulf energy industry back to work,” Vitter said.
Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry, of New Iberia, sits on the House Natural Resources Committee that recently authored and approved legislation that would open up more American seas to drilling, while quickening the permitting process.
“What he has done is tacitly admitted that the increase of supply is needed to control the price,” Landry said.
U.S. Rep. John Fleming, R-Minden, sits on the committee also and called the Obama move “pure politics.”
Democratic U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, of New Orleans, said he is conflicted by the move. Richmond said he is glad that Obama is tapping American sources for the oil, but agrees that more domestic oil production should be a part of the long-term energy solution.
“We have to make sure we’re serious about replenishing it and serious about drilling here at home,” Richmond said.
Matthew Daly of The Associated Press contributed to this report.