PARIS (Reuters) - France is in talks with the United States and Britain on a possible release of strategic oil stocks to push fuel prices lower, French ministers said on Wednesday, four weeks before the country’s presidential election.
Earlier in March, British sources said London was prepared to cooperate with Washington on a release of strategic oil stocks that was expected within months, in a bid to prevent fuel prices from choking economic growth in what is also a U.S. election year.
France’s Energy Minister Eric Besson told journalists after the weekly ministers’ meeting the United States had asked France to join it in a possible emergency inventory release.
Such a release could happen “in a matter of weeks,” Le Monde daily said on Wednesday, citing presidential sources.
Crude oil prices, which have risen almost 16 percent since the start of the year, fell more than a dollar on the news.
“It is the United States which has asked and France has welcomed favorably this hypothesis,” Besson said. He also said the countries were awaiting conclusions from the International Energy Agency (IEA), which coordinates emergency stock releases in case of severe oil supply disruption.
The French budget minister and government spokeswoman, Valerie Pecresse, told journalists France had joined the United States and the UK in IEA consultations to receive authorization to draw from strategic stocks.
A White House official reiterated that the United States was considering a reserve release but no decisions had been made.
“As we have said repeatedly, while this is an option that remains on the table, no decisions have been made and no specific actions proposed,” the official said.
Rising oil prices have become a major headache for politicians around the world including U.S. President Barack Obama, aiming for re-election in November and facing public anger over soaring U.S. gasoline prices.
Fuel prices in France have hit record levels, prompting an intense debate between presidential candidates ahead of the national election.
In neighboring Germany, the government in Berlin said on Wednesday it was unaware of any official request from the United States to release emergency oil stockpiles and did not believe the current situation justified such action under German law.
The German law on oil provisions says emergency reserves can only be released in the case of “physical disruption to supplies. In our view there is no physical shortage at the moment,” a government spokeswoman told reporters.
Oil reserve releases are normally coordinated by the IEA, representing 28 industrialized countries on energy policy.
But the head of the IEA, Maria van der Hoeven, has said on several occasions that a coordinated IEA release is not warranted because there is no significant supply disruption on world oil markets. Germany and Italy say they are opposed.
Van der Hoeven said earlier this month that countries could choose unilaterally to release stocks in consultation with the agency. The IEA declined further comment on Wednesday.
The Paris-based IEA has authorized only three coordinated releases since it was founded in 1974, with the last one in June 2011 in response to lost Libyan production during its civil war.
Aggregate global oil supply outages are running at more than a million barrels a day, a Reuters survey has found, helping provide justification should the U.S., Britain and France decide to release strategic reserves.
Further losses of supply are expected as sanctions on Iran hit its oil exports.
“The use of strategic reserves can be justified because it is related to geopolitical tension,” a source at the presidential office was quoted as saying in the newspaper.
Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry in Paris, Jeff Mason in Washington, and Stephen Brown and Marcus Wacket in Berlin; editing by Richard Mably and Todd Eastham