What could be New Haven’s finest waterfront property is the site of two storage terminals that the federal government is using for an important Northeastern home heating oil reserve program.

Following several winters of near-crisis level oil shortages in the Northeast, former President Bill Clinton approved the reserve system last November, setting aside 2 million barrels of oil to be stored in New Haven and Woodbridge, N.J., for use during future supply crises.

Because homeowners and businesses in the densely populated Northeast rely on imported oil for most of their heating needs, a slowdown or bottleneck in the distribution chain could have potentially chilling consequences, officials at the U.S. Department of Energy’s fossil energy division said.

Half of the 2 million barrel reserve is stored at port facilities in New Haven and Hamden, and the other half is stored near the port at New York Harbor.

In New Haven, the oil is stored at the Motiva and Williams Energy terminals, which are located near the Port of New Haven.

Williams’ main facility at 258 Waterfront St. is situated among several other oil storage terminals owned by the Gulf, Getty and Hess corporations.

Waterfront Street lies directly across New Haven Harbor from the Long Wharf Nature Preserve.

New Haven Economic Development Administrator Henry Fernandez said he was not surprised that the city, with its central location, had been designated as a distribution and storage point.

Fernandez was unfamiliar with the details of the reserve system.

The Energy Department chose the city because of its proximity to an important oil pipeline that supplies fuel to Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Clinton signed the reserve into law after a coalition of several Northeastern congressmen, most of them Democrats, pushed him to act “proactively” to prevent a supply crisis, the Energy Department said.

Under the terms of their contract, the companies storing the oil must ensure that 2 million barrels remain available in the reserve at all times, and they must be able to deliver the oil to any locations in the Northeast within 10 days, according to a Department of Energy official.

Officials at the Energy Department said the reserve was created to provide a “stop-gap inventory” that could serve in a crisis until regular supplies could be reinstituted.

The reserve was never intended to act as a price-reduction device, officials added.

In addition to the 2 million barrel federal reserve, several New England states, including Massachusetts and Rhode Island, have home heating oil reserve systems of their own.