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Topping Off the Biggest Gas Tank

FREEPORT, Tex. - A swamp near here is one of the most secretive places in America. There are no signs, just a 500-acre complex protected at all times by 30 armed guards in combat fatigues patrolling in sport utility vehicles.

This is part of the world's largest and most expensive filling station, the United States Strategic Petroleum Reserve, where a large portion of the government's nearly 700 million barrels of oil are stored in underground salt shafts that are supposed to be stable into the 2020's.

American taxpayers have invested about $20 billion to build and stock this reserve and three others in hidden places since it was created in 1975 in response to the Arab oil embargo that began two years earlier. And now, after 29 years, it is finally about to be filled to the brim for the first time.

Some oil economists say these reserves are having important effects on oil prices. They assume that the United States will no longer be putting upward pressure on oil prices by adding to the reserve, while that huge reservoir will reduce the country's vulnerability to any new shock and soothe the "fear premium" that elevates gas prices. Others say they will simply sleep better, knowing that America has a secure energy supply.

But whether America is no longer vulnerable is not entirely clear, any more than the direction of oil prices themselves. What is clear, from a rare visit permitted by the Energy Department, which manages the reserve, is that this little-known operation is a colossus and nerve center in the energy world.

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