WASHINGTON - Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman said Wednesday the Bush administration has decided to release oil from federal petroleum reserves to help refiners affected by Hurricane Katrina.
The move, which was expected later in the day, is designed to give refineries a temporary supply of crude oil to take the place of interrupted shipments from tankers or offshore oil platforms affected by the storm.
The U.S. Minerals Management Service said Tuesday that 95 percent of the Gulf of Mexico's oil output was out of service. Oil prices surged back above $70 in European markets on Wednesday but slipped quickly to $69.56 after disclosure of the decision involving the release of supplies from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Eight refineries were shut down due to Katrina - half of them producing gasoline.
The government's emergency petroleum stockpile - nearly 700 million barrels of oil stored in underground salt caverns along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast - was established to cushion oil markets during energy disruptions.
The production and distribution of oil and gas remained severely disrupted by the shutdown of a key oil import terminal off the coast of Louisiana and by the Gulf region's widespread loss of electricity, which is needed to power pipelines and refineries.
President Bush, meanwhile, was returning to Washington on Wednesday to oversee the federal response to Katrina. He planned to chair a meeting of a White House task force set up to coordinate federal efforts, across more than a dozen agencies, to assist hurricane victims.
Bush also was expected to visit the ravaged region by week's end, but details on that trip were in flux as the White House worked to make sure a presidential tour would not disrupt the relief and response efforts.
Bodman, speaking on CNBC, said the decision to release reserves was made late Tuesday.
"In a word. It is going to be done," Bodman said. "Last evening it was approved and I think you'll be seeing an announcement about it later in the day. So we are doing everything we can to be responsive."
He said the reserve was contained in five sites, four of which are operative. The site in New Orleans is not.
Bodman said it was too early to say how much oil would be released.
He said his department was dealing with inquiries from three companies about getting oil from the reserve. On Monday, Citgo Petroleum Corp. asked for 250,000 to 500,000 barrels to ensure that its Lake Charles, La., refinery doesn't run out.
"There is an issue with respect to getting electrical power so that we can operate the various pipe lines that supply fuel to the rest of the country," he said, noting that these facilities "deliver finished products, diesel and gasoline, to the Northeast and to the Southeast."
"Our job is to get the infrastructure going again," Bodman said. "To the extent that we have delays in getting these pipelines functioning, then were are going to have the potential for gasoline shortages." Bodman said the administration will "do everything we can do to get fuel available to the rest of the country."
Of tapping the SPR, Bodman said: "Technically it's called an exchange of oil that we deliver today and that we will get oil back plus some interest, if you will, in the future. We will be tapping that today."
Interviewed on the Fox News Channel, Bodman was asked if price gouging is taking place.
"I would like to believe that in this time of crisis that all of us are going to pull together to try to deal with this very difficult circumstance and situation that's confronting not just this region, but this country," he replied. "We're hopeful of that, but if we have some bad actors, we have a mechanism to deal with it."