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Area oil reserve is ready to pump

By CHRIS FRINK Westside bureau

PLAQUEMINE -- Compared to the refineries and chemical plants that tower over both sides of the Mississippi River, this place tucked into a swamp at the end of a two-lane road north of Plaquemine betrays little of its purpose.

Tight security administered by well-armed guards, bolstered by concrete crash barriers and chainlink fencing, gives a hint.

Stretches of large-diameter pipes and several wellheads rising out of pads of crushed limestone offer a clue, but little prepares a visitor for the magnitude of the contents that rest thousands of feet below the Strategic Petroleum Reserve's Bayou Choctaw site.

The site's pipes, pumps, valves and buildings sit atop a dome of rock-hard salt that starts 650 feet below the earth's surface and reaches thousands of feet deeper. That salt dome is more than 2 miles in diameter. The reserve, with its six caverns filled with 73 million barrels of U.S. government crude oil, uses just a portion of the dome.

Standing atop cavern No. 18, with limestone crunching under foot, a visitor gets no idea a cavern large enough to hold a dozen Superdomes stacked one atop the other lies below. That cavern, the site's largest, has space for 17 million barrels of crude but currently holds 15 million.

Refining all 15 million of those 42-gallon barrels in that single cavern would produce 315 million gallons of unleaded, or about 15.7 million fill ups for the average Ford Explorer.

Soon, some of that crude may be refined into gasoline to power Louisiana cars or fuel oil to heat homes in the Northeast.

In a controversial decision based either on the demands of a tight oil market or, some administration critics say, the demands of election-year politics, President Clinton ordered the Department of Energy to transfer 30 million gallons of crude to the open market.

The government will not sell the oil but lend to refiners who will promise to repay the oil, with interest, next year. The stored oil should begin flowing Nov. 1 as part of "Exchange 2000," as the feds call the operation.

-- Martin Thompson (, October 01, 2000


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-- Martin Thompson (, October 01, 2000.

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