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Big Oil 'Sneaks' onto the WSJ's Op-ed Pages

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Visited the Wall Street Journal's editorial pages lately? A spate of editorials and op-ed's about climate change, energy, and the folly of limiting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have mixed opinion, fact, and let's just say not quite fact. Perhaps the editors have pegged these pieces to the Senate's climate debate this week. In any event if you do read the editorials, bring along a few grains of salt.

One recent piece plays fast and loose with U.S. greenhouse gas emissions rates. Another tries to pass as fact a statement of questionable veracity lifted word-for-word without attribution from a highly biased source. Hey, I'm just a scientist, but is that kind of cribbing kosher in journalism school?

The thesis of the op-ed in question ("Blame Congress for High Oil Prices," May 29, 2008) went a little like this: the energy crisis and high oil prices are the fault of Congress and if they would just allow the oil industry to drill for oil in the United States without restriction, then all our energy troubles would be over. One sentence in particular caught my attention:

"Federal lands also hold an estimated 112 billion barrels of recoverable oil, enough to produce gasoline for 60 million cars and fuel oil for 25 million households for 60 years."

Wow, 60 years is a long time — could that statistic be true? The first thing I thought, skeptic that I am, is that those numbers must surely come from the oil industry. So I scanned down the page to find out about the author — Mr. Mackubin Thomas Owens, a professor of the Naval War College. Huh, so maybe the stats were gathered by an objective university professor after all. Then again, maybe not.

Our GreenGrok team at Duke University did a little digging, and it didn't take long to discover that the statistics came straight from the industry's mouth. The "60 years" statement above appears word-for-word in a May 9, 2008 report from the American Petroleum Institute or API. The one difference between the report and Mr. Owens's piece is that API claims only 3.1 million households not 25 million. The API, in case you didn't know, is a trade association whose mission is to "represent all aspects of America's oil and gas industry." Not exactly an unbiased source of information.

(I e-mailed Mr. Owens to see if he had a comment or explanation for the correspondence between "his" words and those of API, and I contacted the editors of the Wall Street Journal about it. No response from either quarter yet.)

But what about the statement? Do U.S. federal lands really hold enough oil to meet our needs for 60 years?

Mr. Owens and API claim that U.S. lands hold 112 billion barrels of recoverable oil. After having checked key government documents (here and here [PDF]), I think 112 is a reasonable number. However, the devil is in the details. Most of the 112 billion barrels is "undiscovered technically recoverable oil" — a highly speculative category. This type of oil resource is included in the total without our knowing if it's really there and without consideration of the economic costs of pumping the stuff out of the ground. According to the Energy Information Administration, the United States has only 21 billion barrels of actual proved oil reserves.

But let's assume, ignoring all the technical and economic issues involved, that all of the 112 billion barrels cited by Mr. Owens and API actually exist and can be pumped out of the ground — how long would it really last?

According to the CIA World Factbook, the United States consumes about 21 million barrels of oil per day or 7.5 billion barrels per year. At our current rate of consumption, 112 billion barrels would last us all of 15 years. The 21 billion barrels of proven reserves — the stuff we know really exists — would last us less than three years. Mr. Owens and the American Petroleum Industry (and it would appear the Wall Street Journal) want you to believe that we can drill and pump our way out of this crisis. No way.

And, by the way, has anyone mentioned climate change?

Dr. Bill Chameides blogs regularly at thegreengrok.com.

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