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• Experts said it’s reasonable to ask why, if the U.S. is trying to lower prices at the pump back home, it would sell oil from its strategic reserve to overseas companies.
• The reason: The U.S. government is obligated to find the highest possible price for assets that it sells, and sometimes U.S. companies aren’t able to handle more oil when the sale is held, leaving foreign companies to buy it.
• The oil market operates on a global level. Lower prices are the results of changes to supply and demand on a global basis, not just in the U.S.
Critics, including conservative media outlets, attacked President Joe Biden for selling oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to a Chinese-owned company. Some of the coverage implies a connection between the sales and Chinese investments linked to Biden’s son Hunter.
Experts in the international oil markets, however, told PolitiFact that the sales were governed by U.S. law, and they see no way that the Biden family could have influenced or benefited from the sales.
"It’s a political talking point, and a ridiculous one," said Patrick De Haan, a vice president with GasBuddy, which tracks gasoline prices.
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The U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve dates from OPEC’s oil embargo in 1973 and 1974, when an oil price shock battered the U.S. economy. It was designed to diminish the vulnerability of the United States to energy supply interruptions, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The reserve has a capacity of more than 700 million barrels, stored in underground geological formations known as salt domes. The reserve encompasses four sites, two each in Louisiana and Texas.
Biden has authorized the sale of some of the reserve’s crude oil to counteract supply shortages, notably the West’s decision to cut back on Russian oil in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. The process is done through a longstanding competitive bidding process, and whoever pays the most gets the oil. (More on this in a bit.)
One batch of oil, totaling 950,000 barrels, was sold on April 21 to Unipec America, a Houston-based, Chinese-owned company. Other batches of crude oil, amounting to about 4 million barrels, were sold to companies based in other countries.
More than two months later, critics of Biden pounced. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson said Biden should be impeached for making the sale.
"So, as gas prices set records in this country, as American citizens who were born here and vote and pay taxes cannot afford to fuel their own cars, the Biden administration is selling off our emergency oil reserves to China," Carlson said July 6. "That's not an indictable offense? It's certainly an impeachable one and they should impeach him for that."
Rep. Drew Ferguson, R-Ga., tweeted on July 7 that "Biden sending oil from the United States Strategic Petroleum Reserve overseas smells to high heaven. While Americans are paying record high prices at the pump, this administration decides to give our oil to the EU and China."
The conservative Washington Free Beacon quoted Daniel Turner — executive director of Power the Future, a pro-U.S. energy production group that targets "the radical environmental movement" — saying that the sale highlights the Biden family’s "relationship to China." The article said that Hunter Biden is tied to Unipec’s parent company, Sinopec. "In 2015, a private equity firm (Hunter Biden) co-founded bought a $1.7 billion stake in Sinopec Marketing," the article said.
As far as any role for Hunter Biden, his lawyer, George Mesires, released a statement on Oct. 13, 2019, saying that Hunter Biden would be resigning from the board of BHR, the investment company with business in China, without receiving any return on his investment or shareholder distributions. This would suggest no stake for Hunter Biden in the 2022 sale to Unipec.
Experts said it’s reasonable to ask why, if the U.S. is trying to lower prices at the pump back home, it would sell oil to overseas companies. But these experts offered a straightforward answer: That’s the law, and that’s how the international oil market works.
De Haan compared the longstanding Strategic Petroleum Reserve process to an "eBay auction for crude oil."
When an administration orders the release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, "the Department of Energy puts out a notice of sale that alerts companies that oil will be made available for purchase," said Hugh Daigle, a professor in the University of Texas-Austin Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering. "Companies then bid competitively on the oil, and the winning bidders receive the oil and the bid price." The winning company works out with the Energy Department when and how it will take possession of the oil.
Sometimes the winning bidders may be U.S. refiners, Daigle said, in which case the oil quickly boosts U.S. gasoline supplies. But in other cases, he said, foreign companies win the bid. This increases the supply of global crude oil and, eventually, helps lower prices in the United States.
The law does not bar foreign companies in good standing from competing in such auctions.
"Companies that wish to bid on the oil sale have to be registered with the Crude Oil Sales Offer Program through the Energy Department, and any company authorized to do business with the U.S. government can register for this," Daigle said. "In the case that a Chinese company submitted a winning bid, there is no restriction on the sale and delivery of oil to that company provided they are properly registered."
Sales to overseas companies typically account for a minority of the oil sold at Strategic Petroleum Reserve auctions. Calculations made for Agence France-Presse found that of 30 million barrels released from the reserve in June 2022, only about 5.35 million barrels were exported.
The oil market operates on a global level, especially since 2015, when the United States ended a ban on the export of U.S.-produced crude oil. This means that the main factors in lowering prices are changing global supply and global demand. Lower demand or greater supply reduces prices.
"The logic of allowing exports is that oil is largely fungible and globally priced," said Robert McNally, president of the Rapidan Energy Group. "So whether a barrel is refined in Louisiana or China or Italy doesn’t really matter from the perspective of the impact on domestic pump prices."
Requiring the oil to stay in the U.S. would be pointless and could be easily evaded, said Clark Williams-Derry, an energy finance analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. An American company could buy oil at auction while selling the equivalent amount from its own reserves to a foreign country, he said.
"It’s not the same physical molecules, but the effects on U.S. and global markets would be essentially identical," Williams-Derry said.
It’s also worth noting that the company that buys oil from the reserve will need to have the ability to refine it. U.S. refiners are currently operating near capacity, and they may have special shortages in capacity for certain types of crude oil being offered from the reserve.
The international oil system, as constructed, is not necessarily "natural, inevitable, or morally commendable," since it is "mostly designed to work to the benefit of oil companies and traders," Williams-Derry said. But, he added, it’s the system we have. In that context, the auction of oil from the strategic reserve to the highest bidder accomplishes the policy goal of lowering oil prices.
Fox News, "Tucker Carlson: Biden should be impeached for sending our natural assets to our enemy China," July 6, 2022
Washington Free Beacon, "Biden Sold a Million Barrels From US Strategic Petroleum Reserve to China-Owned Gas Giant," July 7, 2022
Dew Ferguson, tweet, July 7, 2022
Patrick De Haan, tweet, July 11, 2022
Unipec America Inc., Linked-In profile, accessed July 11, 2022
Strategic Petroleum Reserve auction process, accessed July 11, 2022
Agence France-Presse, "Biden says unprecedented use of oil stockpile will ease US fuel costs 'pain,'" March 31, 2022
Agence France-Presse, "Claims that US oil reserve exports harm consumers are misleading," July 8, 2022
PolitiFact, "Fact-checking claims about Hunter Biden, Joe Biden, and China," Oct. 19, 2020
PolitiFact, "Joe Biden’s release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve: What you need to know," Nov. 24, 2021
Email interview with Robert McNally, president of the Rapidan Energy Group, July 8, 2022
Email interview with Clark Williams-Derry, energy finance analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, July 9, 2022
Email interview with Hugh Daigle, professor in the University of Texas-Austin Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, July 9, 2022
Interview with Patrick De Haan, vice president with GasBuddy, July 11, 2022