In July 2022, social media was full of claims that U.S. President Joe Biden had sold and shipped oil from the country's emergency oil reserves to China. These claims were often accompanied by accusations holding that Biden was not acting in the country's best interest. Some claimed that Biden's alleged shipping of oil to China was keeping gas prices high in the United States. A more fringe set of claims accused Biden of sending oil to China in order to enrich himself and his son, Hunter Biden.
But was any of this true? Did Biden "sell" oil to China? Does exporting oil cause domestic gas prices to rise? And what does Hunter Biden have to do with any of this?
In short, in an attempt to lower gas prices, the United States really did release millions of barrels of oil from a national stockpile, called the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), to be sold on the global market in June 2022. Once this oil was "released," it went up for auction for energy companies to purchase, and once the oil was purchased, it was shipped around the globe. Among several countries that received the shipments was China. But industry experts noted that this was not unusual; The United States often exports oil to that country, or overseas in general. Also, under federal laws, the government cannot dictate where oil gets shipped once companies purchase it. So while some oil was indeed shipped from the U.S. to China in 2022, this wasn't directly decided by the Biden administration.
As for Hunter Biden's connection to these rumors, the president's son used to be a member of an equity firm that once purchased a stake in an oil company owned by the Chinese government. In 2022, that company, Sinopec, purchased oil from the above-mentioned U.S. oil reserve, the SPR, via its American-based company, Unipec. However, Hunter was no longer a member of the equity firm at the time of that sale, and there was no evidence that Sinopec received oil via the SPR for any other reason than it submitted one of the highest bids to pay for its barrels.
Why Did The White House Believe It Needed To Tap into the Oil Reserve?
The SPR — which the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) says is the "world's largest supply of emergency crude oil" — was established in 1975 and has a storage capacity of more than 700 million barrels of crude oil. The main purpose of the SPR is to maintain an emergency supply of oil that can help mitigate disruptions in oil supplies. The DOE explained:
The SPR is a tool used to alleviate the market impacts of both domestic and international disruptions, cause by weather, natural disasters, labor strikes, technical failures/accidents, political disputes or conflicts.
Decisions to withdraw crude oil in the event of an energy emergency are made by the President under the authority of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act and done through a competitive sale. The SPR is always drawdown ready, which means it stands ready to release crude oil to the market within 13 days of Presidential direction; this is the time it takes to conduct the sales process, award contracts and to arrange the logistics for oil transportation.
In March 2022, the Biden administration used that authority, announcing that it ordered for the release of millions of barrels of crude oil from the SPR, in an attempt to stabilize supply and lower global oil prices. A few weeks after this announcement, the DOE announced that it had awarded contracts to 12 companies to purchase 30 million barrels of that oil.
In addition to signing contracts with those oil companies, the DOE said, the Biden administration worked with 30 countries that are part of the International Energy Agency to secure the collective release of more than 60 million barrels of oil.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) today announced that contracts have been awarded for 30 million barrels from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) that was noticed for sale in April 2022. This second emergency sale was conducted as part of a coordinated action with our international allies and partners to provide a wartime bridge that will support American consumers and the global economy in response to Vladimir Putin’s war of choice against Ukraine.
The Biden Administration has taken significant steps to address the pain Americans are feeling at the pump as a result of Putin’s Price Hike and to help lower energy costs. That includes President Biden authorizing the release of 1 million barrels per day from the SPR for the next six months. That action was joined by 30 other International Energy Agency Member Countries who agreed to collectively release an additional 60 million barrels.
The presidential administration described the whole initiative as "the largest release of oil reserves in history," and said the distribution aimed "to serve as a bridge to greater supply in the months ahead."
The scale of this release is unprecedented: the world has never had a release of oil reserves at this 1 million per day rate for this length of time. This record release will provide a historic amount of supply to serve as bridge until the end of the year when domestic production ramps up.
The Department of Energy will use the revenue from the release to restock the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in future years. This will provide a signal of future demand and help encourage domestic production today, and will ensure the continued readiness of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to respond to future emergencies.
Does Exporting Oil Cause Domestic Gas Prices To Rise?
In the summer of 2022, gas prices around the world rose to nearly unprecedented levels. The cause of this spike was due, in part, to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic. These two factors caused the cost of crude oil to increase, which in turn caused the price of gas to increase. The New York Times wrote:
The single biggest factor driving the spike now is the price of crude oil. As of April, according to the Energy Information Administration, the cost of the raw material accounted for 60 percent of the price of a gallon of regular gasoline. That compares to 52 percent the same time a year ago, and just 25 percent in April 2020 — when the pandemic sapped demand for fuel, along with most other goods and commodities.
The Biden administration and leaders from several other countries attempted to curb this spike in gas prices by releasing millions of barrels of crude oil from their respective reserves. (That was what we explained in the previous section.) By taking that step, they hoped to bolster the supply of oil on the global market — which sets the prices of gas. (A number of oil-related internet rumors in 2022 seemed to stem from the same basic misunderstanding about how oil prices are set; the global market, not the United States, sets those prices.)
In an article published by Business Insider in June 2022, Matt Smith, lead oil analyst for the Americas at Kpler, addressed the claim that exporting oil overseas would have a negative impact on domestic prices. Smith said regardless of where, or how, oil from the SPR gets used — either abroad or domestically — the impact on the global market remains the same.
In regard to the United States' release of 30 million barrels of oil from the SPR, Smith said:
'Either way, the goal was to keep [crude] prices down. It doesn't necessarily matter that these barrels are leaving the US, because part of the goal was in response to Russia, so those SPR barrels are meant to backfill Russian crude. [...] And even if SPR barrels are leaving the US, that could actually have a bigger impact on oil prices if it pressures the price down on Brent crude."
When we reached out to the DOE to ask how exporting oil impacts domestic markets, a spokesperson repeated: "Oil is a commodity traded on the global market." The spokesperson said:
Oil is a commodity traded on the global market, and while we can’t explain the decisions of the selected bidders nor control oil and gas companies, the commodity the industry sells or the market, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve remains a critical energy security tool to address global crude oil supply disruptions. The sales and exchanges of crude oil from the SPR are to help the U.S. economy mitigate the impacts from severe global crude oil supply interruptions happening because of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Yes, China Was One of Several Countries That Received US Oil in 2022
As news of this 30-million-barrel release circulated on social media in June 2022, many people highlighted the fact that some of this oil ended up going to China. This was true. When the U.S. released the oil from the SPR, a dozen energy companies purchased different amounts and then shipped their barrels around the globe. The oil went to countries like the Netherlands, India, China, and Italy.
More than 5 million barrels of oil that were part of a historic U.S. emergency reserves release to lower domestic fuel prices were exported to Europe and Asia last month, according to data and sources, even as U.S. gasoline and diesel prices hit record highs. [...] Cargoes of SPR crude were also headed to the Netherlands and to a Reliance (RELI.NS) refinery in India, an industry source said. A third cargo headed to China, another source said.
According to the Agence France Presser (AFP), out of the 30 million barrels of oil released from the SPR, a little more than 5 million barrels were exported. That equaled about 17%.
It should also be noted that, in 2015, U.S. Congress repealed a 40-year-old law prohibiting companies from exporting crude oil. Charisma Troiano, the DOE's press secretary, explained to The Washington Post in July 2022 that that decision blocks the DOE from dictating where companies export the oil they purchase via the SPR, as of this writing. Troiano told The Washington Post:
'This means that the SPR cannot dictate whether or not companies export crude oil received from the reserve. [...] U.S. companies are permitted to place bids on SPR crude oil; DOE cannot dictate what selected bidders will do with the SPR crude oil after delivery.'
Hunter Biden and the Chinese Oil Company Sinopec, Explained
In July 2022, conservative news outlets such as the Federalist published articles claiming that President Biden sold oil to a Chinese-owned company connected to his son, Hunter. These articles were based on a fact (Unipec America Inc., a company with connections to the Chinese-government, indeed purchased some of the oil released by the SPR in 2022), some cherry-picked information (Hunter used to be a member of an equity firm that invested in Sinopec, the Chinese branch of Unipec), and plenty of assumptions.
Unipec America Inc. was one of the 12 companies that purchased oil from the SPR in June 2022. Unipec America, Inc., is a Houston-based company that operates as the trading arm of China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation, or Sinopec. In 2015, Sinopec received some capital investments from a private-equity fund, Bohai Harvest RST (BHR Partners), which once had Hunter on its board. While this string of connections has led to accusations that Hunter influenced Sinopec's purchase of oil that was previously in the U.S. emergency reserve, there was no evidence that that was the case.
For one thing, Hunter Biden announced in October 2019 that he was leaving BHR to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest during his father's 2020 presidential campaign. Hunter Biden's lawyer said in 2021 that he “no longer holds any interest, directly or indirectly” in BHR. In other words, while BHR may have some financial interest in Unipec obtaining oil from the SPR, Hunter was no longer a member of BHR's board when that sale happened.
It's also worth noting that there's no evidence that Sinopec (via Unipec) was unduly awarded a contract to purchase oil from the SPR, or that Hunter used his political positioning to influence this transaction. According to the DOE, oil released from the SPR goes up for auction and is sold to the highest bidder. The DOE stated as a policy:
Section 161 of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA) gives authority to the President under specified conditions to direct the Secretary of Energy to conduct a public sale of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. DOE sells SPR oil in a competitive auction to the highest bidder.
No evidence has been provided to show that Unipec was awarded its contract for any other reason than its bid was among the highest offered.
As global oil prices hit high levels in the summer of 2022, the United States released 30 million barrels of oil in an attempt to stabilize the market. This oil was purchased by 12 energy companies that shipped that oil to refineries in the United States and abroad. While some people or groups claimed the Biden administration was "betraying" America by letting SPR oil get shipped overseas, experts have repeatedly stressed "oil is a global commodity" and no matter whether oil is used abroad or domestically, it will have the same impact on market prices.
Oil industry consultant Philip K. Verleger told The Washington Post: "Where [the oil] goes is essentially irrelevant."
Furthermore, the claim that Hunter Biden used his political influence to secure a sale of U.S. oil to a Chinese-owned company was largely unfounded. No evidence has been provided to suggest that Unipec, a company connected to the Chinese government, was awarded its contract for oil from the SPR for any other reason than it met requirements to make the purchase. Furthermore, while Biden was once a member of a private-equity fund that invested in Sinopec, the Chinese-branch of Unipec, Biden announced that he left that board position years before the oil sale in June 2022.