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Water Log 28.1, May, 2008

Expansion of Strategic Petroleum Reserve Under Fire

Sarah Spigener, 3L, University of Mississippi School of Law

Stephanie Showalter, J.D., M.S.E.L.

In February 2007, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced that Richton, Mississippi would be the site for the expanding facilities of the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). Public reaction to the announcement has been strong. Many Gulf Coast residents were completely unaware of the existence of the project as the first round of environmental assessments began in September 2005, just weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Bowing to public pressure, the DOE announced in March 2008 that it would prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement for its selection of the Richton site. Public hearings were held in early April.

Expansion of the SPR
The SPR was established following the 1973-1974 oil embargo as insurance against future disruptions of the supply chain.  According to DOE, the Gulf of Mexico was the logical choice for the SPR.1 The Gulf Coast is home to many U.S.  refineries and distribution points and there are more than 500 salt domes along the coast,2 which when hollowed out create natural storage tanks. The current capacity of the SPR, which consists of four storage facilities in Louisiana and Texas, is 727 million barrels of oil with an inventory of 688.5 million barrels.  To date, the SPR has been tapped into twice: during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In 1988, at the request of Congress, the DOE began planning for the expansion of the SPR. In 1992, the DOE prepared a Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the Expansion of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (DEIS)which assessed five candidate sites for the expansion of the SPR to 1 billion barrels: Big Hill, Texas; Stratton Ridge, Texas; Weeks Island, Louisiana; Cote Blanche, Louisiana; and Richton, Mississippi.3 Because the SPR was not yet filled to capacity, however, the DOE did not take any action following the release of its DEIS.

In the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct), Congress directed the Secretary of Energy to expand the capacity of the SPR to 1 billion barrels and to fill it completely.4  Expansion sites were to be selected from sites previously considered by the DOE or proposed by a state where a site had been previously studied. This limited the DOE to considering the previous five candidate sites in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi and any others suggested by the governors of those states. On February 14, 2007, the DOE announced that it would create the new storage facility in Richton, Mississippi with a capacity of 160 million barrels and expand the existing sites in Big Hill and Bayou Choctaw. Richton was chosen “for its large and undeveloped salt dome, en­hanced oil distribution capabilities, and inland location that is less vulnerable to the damaging effects of hurricanes.”5

Creating a SPR
To store the petroleum reserves, the DOE carves caverns out of underground salt domes through a process known as “solution mining.” Massive amounts of freshwater are injected into the salt domes to dissolve the salt. The resulting brine is pumped out and injected underground or discharged into the Gulf of Mexico.

In its final environmental impact statement, the DOE estimated that it would need to withdraw 46 million gallons of water a day from the Leaf River to hollow out the salt cavern in Richton.6 During times of low flow, supplemental water would be drawn from the Gulf of Mexico. During the second round of environmental assessments, the DOE is considering the Pascagoula River as an alternative site for the water intake pipe.

Withdrawing 50 million gallons of water a day from either the Leaf River or the Pascagoula River would have significant impacts on aquatic life. Some fish, for instance, may not be able to survive in such chronic low-flow conditions. The Gulf sturgeon, a species listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, is just one of many species which would be adversely affected by the project. Discharging the brine into the Gulf of Mexico will greatly increase the salinity near the discharge pipe potentially affecting sea life in the area. In addition, over 1,500 acres of wetlands could be affected by the construction phases of the project.

A lot of voices hope to be heard during the public comment period for the supplemental environmental impact statement. The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources (DMR) has recommended that DOE use salty water from the Gulf of Mexico, rather than fresh water, to hollow out the salt dome at the site.7 The Gulf Conservation Coalition, an environmental group formed to address threats posed by the project, argues that freshwater should be withdrawn from the Mississippi River and the brine injected underground.8 A Mississippi House committee recently drafted a resolution asking that water be withdrawn from the Gulf of Mexico rather than from the Pascagoula River system because of the potentially damaging effects on the Pascagoula River.9 Additionally, a board of supervisors in a neighboring county passed a resolution expressing their desire that the DOE take water out of the Mississippi River or the Gulf of Mexico.10

It is safe to assume, given the Congressional mandate to expand the SPR and the amount of planning already invested by the DOE, that Richton, Mississippi will be the site of a new petroleum reserve. Hopefully, during the second round of environmental assessments, the DOE will take the concerns of the residents of the Gulf Coast to heart and redesign the project to have less environmental impacts.Anchor, end of article.

1.    Department of Energy, Strategic Petroleum Reserve – Profile,
http://fossil.energy.gov/programs/reserves/spr/index.html .
2.    Id.
3.    Department of Energy, Final Environmental Impact Statement for Site Selection for the Expansion of the Nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, S-1 (December 2006) available at
http://fossil.energy.gov/programs/reserves/spr/publications/2006_SPR_EIS/Refer.pdf .
4.    Energy Policy Act of 2005, Pub. L. 109-58, 119 Stat. 684 (Aug. 8, 2005).
5.    Department of Energy, Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement: Site Selection for the Expansion of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, 73 Fed. Reg. 11,895 (Mar. 5, 2008).
6.    FEIS, supra note 3, at S-40.
7.    Newsom, Michael, DMR has Alternate Idea for Salt Dome, Biloxi-SunHerald, Feb. 14, 2008.
8.    Id.
9.    Newsom, Michael, Resolution Seeks Salt Dome Revision, Biloxi-SunHerald, Mar. 20, 2008.
10.  Roley, Veto F., George County Supervisors Oppose Salt Dome Plan, The Mississippi Press, Mar. 7, 2008.


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