Image: Private security contractors patrolling the U.S. Department of Energy's Strategic Petroleum Reserve
Donna Carson  /  Reuters
Private security contractors patrol the U.S. Department of Energy's Strategic Petroleum Reserve in Bryan Mound, Texas.
By John W. Schoen Senior producer
updated 6/23/2011 5:51:49 PM ET 2011-06-23T21:51:49

Thursday’s surprise release of 60 million barrels of crude reserves is not about keeping oil consumers well supplied. It’s about chasing oil speculators out of the market.

And it seems to be working.

“This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back — this is the tipping point,” said Fadel Gheit, oil analyst for Oppenheimer, a leading investment bank. “The speculators will have to change their positions. Instead of betting on higher prices they have to bet on lower prices."

In a coordinated move, U.S. and European energy officials announced they would release 60 million barrels of oil from strategic stockpiles over the next month after OPEC failed this month to agree on an increase in production. Those extra OPEC barrels were supposed to replace crude output lost when civil war in Libya shut down production.

"This supply disruption has been underway for some time and its effect has become more pronounced as it has continued," said the International Energy Agency in a statement. It said expectations were that Libyan production would remain off the market for the rest of 2011.

"Greater tightness in the oil market threatens to undermine the fragile global economic recovery," it said.

But independent analysts said the move was aimed more at bursting the speculative bubble rather than substantially improving market supply. Lowering oil prices further would help boost the weak U.S. economy at a time when both the Fed’s monetary stimulus and the government’s spending stimulus are winding down.

Based on the market's immediate response, the plan seems to be working.

News of the oil release sent gasoline tumbling 14 cents a gallon in the futures markets. That’s the equivalent of about $56 million a day in savings at the gas pump — or about $20 billion a year, according to Peter Beutel, and oil analyst a Cameron Hanover. In New York trading crude oil was down $4.01 to $91.40 a barrel, more than 20 percent below peak levels of $114 hit in early May.

“It’s a shot in the arm for the economy,” said Beutel. “It acts like a massive tax rebate to the American consumer.”

How much oil?

Barrels per day


World oil production


World oil consumption


June 23 government reserves release


SOURCE: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Story: US, other nations releasing oil from reserves

But the amount of oil to be released — about 2 million barrels a day for 30 days —represents just a tiny fraction of the global demand of some 84 million barrels so will have little impact on supply.

In fact, there’s little evidence that the latest surge in oil prices is the result of strong demand straining tight supplies. Despite the loss of Libyan production, about 1.5 million barrels a day, oil markets are well supplied — largely because OPEC countries have been producing well above their official quotas.

“I don't see what the release of 60 million barrels of oil adds to the market," said Christophe Barret, an oil analyst at Credit Agricole. “We don't need it in terms of levels of stocks; we are 35 million barrels above the five-year average already. It's the equivalent of two months (of) Libyan production, so I'm not sure it will make much difference."

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On the demand side, a weakening economy also has eased the pressure on prices. Sluggish economic growth in the U.S. and Europe has cut into oil consumption. Gasoline prices that ran up to a peak of about $4 a gallon nationwide forced many drivers to cut back.

Despite adequate supplies and weakening demand, oil has been trading well over $100 a barrel. That's prompted calls to try to eliminate the added premium created by investors who have placed big bets on higher oil prices. Earlier this month, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for tighter controls on the speculators, whom he blames for spiraling food and energy prices.

Chasing speculators out of the market could have a substantial and rapid impact on prices.

"Over 60 to 70 percent of the oil market is speculative," said Gulf Oil chief executive Joseph Petrowski. "When the market starts to perceive for one reason or another that either supply is getting more ample or there's going to be less demand or the economy is weaker, you flush out the speculative interest. So prices grind up and then we bang down."

Oil market watchers like Gheit say that — based solely on the fundamental forces supply and demand — oil should be trading about $20 below current levels.

"I think the IEA is trying to act like a central bank," said Dominick Chirichella, founding member of the Energy Management Institute in New York. "With the IEA dumping two million barrels a day onto the market, I don't think anyone will be comfortable being long on oil. I think U.S. oil prices will trade in the $85 to $92 a barrel range going forward. We may see oil trading in the 80s very soon."

Although the volume of oil to be released is small, there is plenty more available if the initial round doesn’t achieve the desired impact. Total strategic reserves of the global consumer nations in the IEA top 1.6 billion barrels, including 727 million barrels in the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

So anyone betting on a continued rise in oil prices runs the risk that Thursday’s release is just the first of many aimed at lowering prices. Removing those speculators from the market would eliminate the premium paid to cover the profits generated by investors, said Gheit.

“I want all the gamblers to lose everything they own,” he said. “We're paying for it when these guys are betting with someone else's money. And the consumers are the ones losing money."

Reuters contributed to this story.

Video: Oil reserves tapped, some cry foul

Photos: World's thirst for oil

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  1. Spilled crude oil is seen near Bodo, Nigeria, on June 24, 2010. Bodo villagers have sued Shell over two recent spills, and the company in July 2011 agreed not to oppose their efforts to have the claims heard in a British court, which could expose Shell to greater financial damage. A U.N. report released on Aug. 4, 2011, said oil pollution in the Niger Delta would take 30 years to clean up and that the initial tab could be $1 billion. (Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Greenpeace activists climb ladders on the Leiv Eiriksson drilling rig, operated by British oil explorer Cairn Energy, 112 miles off the Greenland coast, on June 4, 2011. Greenpeace activists were removed from the rig after suspending themselves from the Leiv Eiriksson, but days later, some 18 activists boarded the Leiv Eiriksson and were taken to meet the drill manager. (Steve Morgan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. An oil tank burns in the port of Gibraltar on May 31, 2011. The cruise ship Independence of the Seas was nearby but pulled out to sea for safety. (Douglas Cumming / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Pedestrians run from the scene of a fire ravaging four fuel tankers on Lagos's Ibadan highway on May 11, 2011. Two people lost their lives after two tankers loaded with fuel collided and the ensuing blaze spread to two other tankers on the Lagos-Ibadan highway, a gateway to other parts of the country. The accident stalled traffic around Lagos. (Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. An aerial view of an illegal oil refinery Ogoniland outside Port Harcourt in Nigeria's Delta region on March 24, 2011. Crude oil thieves -- known locally as "bunkerers" -- have been a fact of life for years in Africa's biggest oil and gas industry, puncturing pipelines and costing Nigeria and foreign oil firms millions of dollars in lost revenues each year. (Akintunde Akinleye / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mammoet Co. workers move a reduced-size megaload, carried on 18-axles remotely controlled, into a new storage yard at the Port of Lewiston on May 9, 2011 in Lewiston, Idaho. Several dozen of the large modules of oil-processing equipment will be stored there, awaiting permits to be transported on U.S. Highway 95 through Moscow to the Kearl Oil Sands project in Alberta, Canada. (Barry Kough / Lewiston Tribune / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. NATO oil tankers in Karachi, Pakistan prepare to depart for Afghanistan on May 3, 2011. According to official figures, 80 percent of NATO supplies are transported to Afghanistan via Pakistan. (Rehan Khan / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A laborer carries an empty oil container at a wholesale fuel market in Kolkata April 7, 2011. India's fuel price index climbed 13.13 percent in the year to March 26, government data on Thursday showed. (Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Natural gas storage tanks burn at the Cosmo oil refinery in Ichihara city, Chiba Prefecture, near Tokyo March 11, 2011, following the massive 8.9 magnitude quake. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A Filipino vendor arranges bottles of gasoline and engine oil sold at a roadside stall in Quezon City, eastern Manila, Philippines on March 2, 2011. The Philippines is aiming to increase its current inventory of crude and other oil products as part of measures to manage the impact of the continuing political unrest in the Middle East and north Africa, according to the government's energy department. World oil prices are being affected as Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's grip on power in the OPEC-member nation has been challenged by violent protests calling for his resignation. (Rolex Dela Pena / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A picture taken on April 7, 2011 from a helicopter shows Russian LUKOIL ice-resistant fixed platform LSP-1, built at the Astrakhansky Korabel shipyard, intended to drill and operate wells and collect and pre-treat reservoir content at Korchagins oil field in the Russian sector of the Caspian Sea some 120 miles outside Astrakhan. The field's productivity of oil and gas condensate will peak at 2.3 million tonnes oil and 1.2 bcm gas per year. (Mikhail Mordasov / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Rebels pray in front of an anti-aircraft gun near a refinery in Ras Lanuf on March 8, 2011. Libyan government troops, tanks and warplanes attacked rebels on the western and eastern fronts on Tuesday, pressing their campaign to crush an insurrection against Muammar Gaddafi. In the east, a swathe of which is under rebel control, air strikes targetted rebel positions behind the frontline around the oil town of Ras Lanuf on the Mediterranean coast. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Protestors holds signs across the street from a working natural gas well drilling in Flower Mound, Texas on Monday, Nov. 29, 2010. Residents in suburban Texas and rural Pennsylvania are living with the nastiness and rancor erupting in communities nationwide over the volatile issue of hydraulic fracturing, a form of gas drilling. (Lm Otero / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Floor hands and engineers adjust a down hole motor used for directional drilling on a natural gas drilling platform on December 18, 2008 in the Barnett Shale in Fort Worth, Texas. Drilled in a commercial area adjacent to the Interstate-35W expressway, the 11,600 foot well is owned by Chesapeake Energy Corporation. It's the first of 10-13 wells expected to be drilled on the leased site. Urban wells are required to be 600 feet from the nearest homes, schools, churches, hospitals and parks. Multiple wells on a site require less distance. In Texas, state law gives owners of mineral rights the prerogative over owners of surface land. One of the largest natural gas fields in the US, the Barnett Shale formation, discovered in the early 1950's, covers 5,000 square miles underlying the Dallas-Fort Worth area and is proven to hold 2.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The Barnett Shale is known as a tight gas reservoir in hard shale rock and requires hydraulic fracturing technology to properly release the underground gas. Drilling in urban areas of Fort Worth has been a contentious issue between city councils, local residents, large land holders and influential energy companies. Residents have been objecting to heavy truck traffic of 18-wheel service vehicles, road destruction, noise, dust and waste water removal. Fort Worth has been called the guinea pig for natural gas drilling in close proximity to residential areas. (Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Louisiana coastal director Garret Graves diggs up oiled soil in a coastal marsh on April 19, 2011, at Middle Ground in southern Louisiana. A year after the BP oil spill coated Gulf coast beaches and marshes, BP claims that most of the oil has been removed. Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries says, however, that much of the coastal cleaning has been superficial, as the oil has seeped into the soil, killing marshes and further eroding the state's damaged Mississippi Delta ecosystem. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon on April 21, 2010. The oil rig was located 42 miles southeast of Venice, La. where it drilled through 5,000 feet of water and 13,000 feet underneath the seabed. (U.S Coast Guard via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A kayaker stops to photograph a gash, approximately 90-feet long, in the hull of the container ship Cosco Busan in Oakland, Calif., on November 10, 2007. The vessel struck the Bay Bridge spilling about 58,000 gallons of oil into the San Francisco Bay. Hundreds of people and a fleet of oil-skimming boats wprked to clean up San Francisco Bay's worst oil spill in nearly two decades, as rescue teams raced to save hundreds of seabirds. (Noah Berger / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A man walks along oil pipelines belonging to Italian oil company Agip in Obrikom, Nigeria, March 6, 2006. Angola is joining OPEC, African oil exploration is booming and China is investing. The stampede for African oil has continued, even as militant attacks in some countries and precarious governments in others make returns uncertain. (George Osodi) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. An Iranian technician works at the Balal offshore oil platform in the Gulf waters, in the Gulf on the edge of Qatar's territorial waters, 16 May 2004. Iran's Vice President Mohammad Ali Aref officially inaugurated the Balal offshore oil field developed by French major Total together with BowValley of Canada and Italy's Agip. The Balal field is currently producing 40,000 barrels per day and was developed under a 310-million-dollar agreement signed in 1999. (Behrouz Mehri / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. The Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) oil ri sits near the shores of the state of Campeche, Mexico,in the Gulf of Mexico, September 4, 2006. Mexico on August 20, 2007 put part of its Caribbean coast on red alert and shut down its offshore oil facilities as Hurricane Dean barreled toward the Yucatan Peninsula after killing at least six people and battering Jamaica. Projections had the hurricane making landfall about 150 kilometers (93 miles) south of Cancun. (Eunice Adorno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Trains haul oil tank cars at a railway station in PetroChina's Daqing oil field in China's northeastern Heilongjiang province, November 5, 2007. Chinese oil majors will push back maintenance work and curb exports to guarantee diesel supplies after the country's worst fuel crunch in four years, the country's top economic planner said. (Stringer Shanghai / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Oil field workers work at a well head in Sinopec's Jianghan oil field on the outskirts of Guanghua, central China's Hubei province, November 5, 2007. Chinese oil majors will push back maintenance work and curb exports to guarantee diesel supplies after the country's worst fuel crunch in four years, the country's top economic planner said. (Stringer Shanghai / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. An oil installation in Saudi Arabia's northeastern Gulf port of Jubail, June 1, 2004. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) will increase oil output this month by 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) over its OPEC quota to help ease record prices, Oil Minister Obeid bin Saif al-Nassiri announced June 2, 2004. Crude oil futures in New York surged on June 1 to a record closing price of 42.33 dollars a barrel, as a deadly weekend attack in Saudi Arabia heightened fears about terrorist disruptions to energy supplies. (Bilal Qabalan / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Oil refinery Complex Jose de Anzoategui, 200 miles east of Caracas, Venezuela. The complex, that makes refined crude from the heavy oil of the Orinoco Belt, is a joint venture between Venezuelan state owned PDVSA and the foreign companies Chevron, British Petrolum, Total and Statoil. On May 1, 2007 Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez changed the stock holdings of the complex to make PDVSA, with 60 percent of the stocks, in control of the participating companies. (Diego Giudice / Redux Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A bucketwheel once used by Syncrude in the oil sand fields to move the sand to the extraction plant lies idle, June 12, 2007 in Fort McMurray Canada. The development of Canada's oil sands is laying waste to its great northern forest and western plains, say critics who point to skyrocketing greenhouse gas emissions, diverted rivers and razed backwoods. And the devastation can only get worse, they say, as energy companies pump billions of dollars into new projects to triple local oil production to some 3.0 million barrels per day within the next decade. (David Boily / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. The trans-Alaska oil pipeline on remote wind-scraped flatlands in Alaska's north coast near the Beaufort Sea is seen Monday, March 13, 2006. Lawmakers will question BP's top U.S. official at a potentially contentious hearing Wednesday, May 16, 2007 focused on whether the company neglected necessary pipeline maintenance before oil spills in Alaska. (Rick Bowmer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. The Syncrude extraction facility in the northern Alberta oil sand fields is reflected in the pool of water being recycled for re-use in the extraction process, June 14, 2007 in Fort McMurray, Canada. With world oil prices hovering at near nine-month highs and global energy firms flush with cash, analysts are predicting that control of Canada's booming oil sands sector could soon fall into foreign hands. Analysts said Canadian companies such as UTS Energy, Canadian Oil Sands, Opti Canada and Western Oil Sands with properties in northern Alberta are likely takeover targets. (David Boily / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. The Discoverer Deep Seas drillship sits on station off the coast of Louisiana as Chevron drills for oil in the Gulf of Mexico March 28, 2006. As budget planning gets under way for Gulf Coast states, the states are realizing how much spending freedom they have with royalties from an offshore drilling expansion . They can use the money to pave roads, erect bridges, lay water lines or finish just about any other public works projects they can link to the coast. (Alex Brandon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A picture taken September 13, 2006 shows an oil tanker supplied with oil at the main oil port in Bijaya City some 210km east of Algiers. The 50 billion dollar 2005 oil revenue is considered Algeria's largest source of national income. (Fayez Nureldine / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Workers load a fish processing machine with Tilapia fishes at the ''Aquafinca Saint Peter Fish'', in the village El Borboton, 200 km North of Tegucigalpa, July 23, 2007. The company began 5 years ago processing Tilapia fish for the food industry, but now they started processing them to produce biodiesel, becoming the world leader in biodiesel from animal origin. (Elmer Martinez / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Guests and members of the media in attedence as Imperium Renewables open the largest biodiesel production facility in the United States at the Port of Grays Harbor, August 15, 2007 in Hoquiam, Washington. The opening was presented as an opportunity to replace dependence on foreign oil imports with cleaner, renewable fuels while also providing benefits to the local community and agricultural industries. (Kevin Casey / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Mining trucks carry loads of oil laden sand after being loaded by huge shovels at the Albian Sands oils sands project in Ft. McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on August 5, 2005. An environmental group opposing the first commercial U.S. oil sands project is appealing to Utah water quality regulators to reconsider its decision to permit the plan. The Moab-based group Living Rivers has been fighting the project, claiming it could contaminate an underground aquifer. (Jeff Mcintosh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. A labourer works at a branch factory of China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNPC) in Lanzhou. CNPC has become the first Chinese firm to control a Canadian oil sands project after winning exploration rights to the resources in Alberta. In 2005, China National Offshore Oil Corp agreed to acquire a 16.69 percent stake in Canada's MEG Energy Corp, for 150 million Canadian dollars. The later owns oil sand leases in 52 sections totalling 32,800 acres in Alberta. Sinopec, Asia's largest refiner, also agreed to pay 150 million Canadian dollars for a 40 percent stake in a joint venture producing synthetic crude from western Canada oil sands. The Shanghai newspaper cited officials with the China National Petroleum Corp as saying that oil sands, which are more expensive to process than light crude, are viable as long as crude prices are above 30 dollars per barrel. At an estimated 173 billion barrels, Canada's oil sands rank second behind Saudi Arabia in petroleum reserves at 230 billion barrels but they were long neglected due to high extraction costs. Since 2000, however, soaring crude prices and improved extraction technology have persuaded several foreign companies to invest billions of dollars. (Cao Zhizheng / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Two Iraq oil workers walk through the Dura oil refinery outside Baghdad Saturday, February 22, 2003. Iraq's oil reserves are the second largest in the world after Saudi Arabia. (Jerome Delay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. In this undated photo provided by the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, caribou graze on a section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. The U.S. Senate on Wednesday, March 16, 2005, voted to open the Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (35) World’s thirst for oil
  2. Jimmy Margulies / New Jersey Record,
    Slideshow (7) Big Oil is Big Business


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