The Irony of Selling Oil Reserves to Pay for Highway Expansion

The Bryan Mound Strategic Petroleum Reserve site, one of several in the U.S., is capable of holding 226 million barrels of oil. Source: The Center for Land Use Interpretation.

Unsurprising news from Politico and Streetsblog says that the U.S. Senate has put together a whole grab bag of one-off gimmicks to fund federal transportation programs for another few years, but one idea stood out to me as particularly ludicrous: selling off $9 billion worth of the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserves (SPR) to help pay for more highway construction.

Tanya Snyder at Streetsblog emphasized how this is just the latest in a series of "gimmicky pay-fors" that have resulted from Congress's unwillingness to embrace higher gas taxes, despite the fact that the federal gas tax has just over half as much impact on consumers today as when it was last raised in 1993. Politico's article focused on how this idea runs counter to the whole "strategic" aspect of the SPR, which is intended to serve as a buffer against supply disruptions if disaster or war threatens the global flow of oil—not a piggy bank to be tapped any time legislators can't find the courage to make more economically sustainable decisions. 

Putting aside the cowardly and economically unsustainable nature of these recommendations, however, I'd just like to draw attention to the incredible irony of the sale of strategic oil reserves to fund highway expansion. These senators are proposing that we invest even more in our already-overbuilt highway network and that we pay for it by chipping away at the protections that keep an oil-dependent economy stable. They're looking to bolster our long-term dependence on the global supply of oil while at the same time increasing our vulnerability to disruptions of that supply. How can you write this into federal law with a straight face? Did we just get trolled by a U.S. Senator?

So much of our state and federal transportation programs seem built around a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach to infrastructure investment, but I've yet to see that mindset more perfectly encapsulated into an explicit policy proposal. Fortunately there are senators on both sides of the aisle in opposition, but this isn't the first time an SPR sell-off has been used to fund non-critical programs, and I don't think it's the last we'll hear of it.