Media overstated amount of oil that ANWR drilling could produce

››› ››› KURT DONALDSON

In articles on the House's passage of a bill that would allow oil exploration in a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and the Associated Press overstated the amount of oil that could be produced if the bill becomes law.

Reporting the House's passage of a bill that would permit oil exploration in a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), May 26 articles from The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and the Associated Press overstated the amount of oil that could be produced if the bill becomes law. The Times reported that "[b]ackers of the drilling" say "10.3 billion barrels of oil would lead to greater energy independence." The Post similarly reported that "proponents say ... 10.4 billion barrels" would be added to "the nation's oil reserves." Both USA Today and the AP wrote that "federal geologists" estimate the land holds between 5.4 billion and 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil, with the AP adding that the land set aside for drilling is "likely to hold about 11 billion barrels of recoverable oil." But these estimates appear to be based on the amount of "technically recoverable" oil purportedly contained in the entire ANWR region, not the mean estimate for the smaller area addressed by the House bill. Moreover, the articles do not address economic factors that could further constrain oil production in the drilling area.

As Media Matters for America has noted, the figures cited by these media outlets 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 the House proposal become law. 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, the use of statistics for technically recoverable oil is misleading. As Media Matters has 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 about $70 a barrel ($55.58 in 1996 dollars, which the USGS report used). While the USGS did not continue its analysis beyond $40 a barrel (in 1996 dollars), it appears that if the trend shown until that point were to continue, an average of about 7 billion barrels of oil would be economically recoverable at current prices.

From the May 26 New York Times article:

Backers of the drilling contend that the promise of 10.3 billion barrels of oil would lead to greater energy independence and job creation. Opponents say that the risk of spills and other environmental damage outweighs the benefits and that drilling for oil delays the development of alternative fuels.

From the May 26 Washington Post article:

Twenty-seven Democrats voted for Pombo's bill, which proponents say would add 10.4 billion barrels to the nation's oil reserves, and 30 Republicans voted against it.

From the May 26 USA Today article:

The House of Representatives voted Thursday to allow oil exploration on a small portion of Alaska's 19 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The vote was 225-201 to allow drilling on 1.5 million acres that federal geologists estimate hold 5.4 billion to 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil.

From the May 26 Associated Press article:

The House voted 225-201 to direct the Interior Department to open oil leases on the coastal strip of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- an area of 1.5 million acres that is thought likely to hold about 11 billion barrels of recoverable oil.

[...]

While oil companies have long eyed the area where federal geologists estimate anywhere from 5.4 billion to as much as 16 billion barrels of oil may be recoverable, environmentalists consider it one of their top priorities for protection.

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.