Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 12/2012

Lessons Learned From the 2011 Strategic Petroleum Reserve Release

Blake Clayton

September 2012

Council on Foreign Relations


On June 23, 2011, the International Energy Agency (IEA) announced plans to coordinate the release of emergency oil stockpiles in an attempt to offset an ongoing loss of crude oil production in Libya. In the six months prior, oil prices had jumped more than 20 percent, as political upheaval in Libya had prevented an estimated 132 million barrels of oil from reaching the market. IEA member country policymakers feared that high oil prices risked undermining a nascent global economic recovery. To combat that threat, twelve IEA member countries made roughly sixty million barrels of crude oil and refined oil products, such as diesel and gasoline, available to the market. The release, which the IEA referred to as the “Libya collective action,” lasted from July 23, 2011, until September 15, 2011. It was only the third time in its nearly thirty-year history that the IEA, which was founded after the 1973 oil crisis, has undertaken a coordinated release, though the United States has unilaterally released strategic stocks on several occasions for reasons that include raising revenue and countering rising heating oil prices. The 2011 IEA release provided policymakers with valuable lessons about three critical aspects of these emergency interventions: their effect on oil prices and market perception, their implications for international cooperation, and the logistical issues they raise about the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). Energy officials in IEA countries should bear in mind those market-imposed constraints when structuring future releases, tailor their cooperation with influential oil-producing and -consuming countries to evolving geopolitical realities, and address potential operational impediments to the U.S. SPR, informed by the experience of the 2011 release.