USA Today, LA Times overstated anticipated output of ANWR drilling; USA Today understated amount of land affected by it

››› ››› JOE BROWN

In recent days, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times misrepresented the facts underlying the debate over whether to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Both newspapers overstated the amount of oil that would be gained by drilling, and USA Today understated the area of land that would be affected by drilling.

In recent days, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times misrepresented the facts underlying the debate over whether to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Both newspapers overstated the amount of oil that would be gained by drilling, and USA Today understated the area of land that would be affected by drilling.

A December 20 USA Today editorial, which was in favor of ANWR drilling, stated: "ANWR has at least 6 billion and maybe 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil, U.S. Geological Survey says." Similarly, a December 21 USA Today article by Richard Wolf reported that ANWR's "coastal plain holds 5 billion to 16 billion barrels of oil." Also, a December 22 Los Angeles Times article by Richard Simon and Joel Havemann reported: "Federal estimates say the equivalent of 10 billion barrels of oil lies beneath the refuge's tundra."

But these numbers represent the amount of oil deemed "technically recoverable" -- oil that can be obtained given technological and geological constraints, regardless of economic factors -- in the entire 19-million-acre ANWR region, as opposed to the amount contained in the 1.5 million acre coastal plain or "ANWR 1002" area that would be opened for oil drilling should proposals, such as those recently put forth in Congress, pass into law. The December 21 USA Today article referenced the ANWR coastal plain but falsely attributed to the coastal plain the amount of technically recoverable oil purportedly contained in the entire ANWR region. A 1998 U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) assessment states: "The total quantity of technically recoverable oil within the entire [ANWR] assessment area is estimated to be between 5.7 and 16.0 billion barrels ... with a mean value of 10.4 billion barrels." But the amount of technically recoverable oil in the ANWR 1002 area "is estimated to be between 4.3 and 11.8 billion barrels ... with a mean value of 7.7 billion barrels."

In addition, USA Today's and the Times' use of statistics for technically recoverable oil is misleading. As Media Matters for America previously noted (here and here), the USGS also assessed how much of the technically recoverable oil in the 1002 region would be "economically recoverable," or cost-effective to obtain, given a particular price of oil. The current price of oil is $58.90 a barrel ($46.77 in 1996 dollars, which the USGS report used). While the USGS did not continue its analysis beyond $40 a barrel (1996 dollars), if the trend shown until that point were to continue, an average of approximately 7 billion barrels of oil would be economically recoverable at current prices.

Further, the USA Today editorial asserted that "[o]nly 2,000 acres of the 19 million-acre ANWR refuge would be subject to drilling," as did the December 21 USA Today article, which reported that "only 2,000 acres of [ANWR's coastal plain] could be drilled" under current legislative proposals. But as Media Matters noted when Fox News' Sean Hannity and Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton advanced similar claims, opponents of drilling contend that the drilling's impact would extend well beyond the 2,000-acre footprint of the drilling pads themselves, given the need for roads and pipelines connecting the pads. The Los Angeles Times reported on March 30, 2002, that "the Sierra Club says a 2,000-acre footprint could still support a broad level of development" outside the drilling area and that Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope noted that "one scenario that was consistent with the 2,000-acre footprint ... would sustain 53 drilling pads and 250 miles of roads and pipelines."

During a November 2 Senate floor debate over a since-defeated provision to authorize oil drilling in ANWR, Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-IL) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) offered a pointed critique of the same claim espoused by USA Today.

Durbin stated:

The argument that this is just going to affect 2,000 acres -- I am sorry -- having flown over this area, having seen what happens, I know, and the Department of Interior knows, it isn't just about the pad where you drill. It is about roads and airstrips and pipelines and water and gravel sources and base camps and construction camps, storage pads, power lines, power plants, support facilities, coastal marine facilities -- it is a huge undertaking.

Cantwell stated:

I point out there is a misrepresentation that somehow drilling in ANWR only covers a small area. Drilling in the refuge will really create a spider web of industrial activities over the entire 1.5 million acre coastal plain, so it is much larger than just a small footprint. This legislation might also open up nearly 100,000 acres of native land on the Arctic coastal plain.

From the December 20 USA Today editorial:

Despite the unfortunate choice of legislative vehicles, there are good reasons the Senate should vote to permit ANWR drilling, as the House of Representatives did Monday:

  • ANWR has at least 6 billion and maybe 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil, U.S. Geological Survey says. It could provide 1 million barrels a day for 30 years, or about 5% of daily consumption. It wouldn't reduce gas prices next week or next year, but it would help ease the nation's long-term energy crunch.
  • It could be done without wrecking the environment. Opponents claim drilling would ruin the pristine beauty of the refuge. But the experience with oil development at nearby Prudhoe Bay is encouraging. The caribou herd has flourished there, and newer technology means the environmental impact of drilling can be minimized.

Only 2,000 acres of the 19 million-acre ANWR refuge would be subject to drilling, in an area so remote that few Americans not associated with the oil industry will ever see it.

From the December 21 USA Today article:

The 19.6-million-acre wildlife refuge was created by President [Dwight D.] Eisenhower in 1960. It is home to caribou, polar bears and about 150 species of migratory birds.

Its coastal plain holds 5 billion to 16 billion barrels of oil, enough to supply the nation for up to two years.

Congress approved drilling in 1996, but President [Bill] Clinton vetoed it. The House passed it twice in the last Congress and again this year, but it's been tied up in the Senate.

Only about 1.5 million acres would be subject to exploration under the legislation, and only 2,000 acres of that could be drilled.

From the December 22 Los Angeles Times article:

Opening a portion of the refuge to energy exploration has long been among the nation's most intensely fought environmental proposals. Drilling proponents suggest the oil is critical to national security and economic growth.

Federal estimates say the equivalent of 10 billion barrels of oil lies beneath the refuge's tundra. The U.S. consumes about 20 million barrels of oil a day.

Posted In
Environment & Science, Drilling
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