A pipeline at the Strategic Petroleum Reserve near  Beaumont, Texas

A pipeline at the Strategic Petroleum Reserve near Beaumont, Texas Credit: Newsmakers

Why, all of a sudden, has the United States decided to release 30 million barrels of oil from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve? And why is another 30 million barrels being released in concert from other nations' emergency stocks?

The stated reason for this coordinated effort is to make up for the shortfall resulting from the Libyan conflict. But market pros say that shortfall has been filled by other suppliers. And the 60 million barrels being released isn't much in a world that uses 89 million barrels every day.

U.S. gasoline prices are down lately, moreover. And the Federal Reserve said Wednesday that economic growth will be slower than previously anticipated -- which implies softer demand for oil going forward.

But markets are finely balanced and the surprise move to release some of the world's rainy-day oil drove down prices -- and drove up suspicion that the Obama administration is just trying to impress the voters, who are sensitive to energy prices.

Certainly the move sets a dubious precedent, given how reliably, when gasoline prices are rising, some politician will call for the strategic oil reserve to be tapped.

But our national oil set-aside is too important to use this way. Oil is our lifeblood, and salting away massive reserves ensures that no other nation can get us over a barrel. So let's save the stuff for when we really need it. Based on what we know so far, this new release -- the first since Hurricane Katrina -- hardly seems justified.