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Washington Examiner: Facts get in the way of president's oil argument

Published: March 19, 2012

THAT was quite a performance Thursday at Prince George's Community College when President Obama spoke on energy issues. He repeated so many Big Green energy myths that even the most obsessive environmentalists must surely have been exhilarated.

One of those myths deserves particular attention because it is at the core of Obama's “clean energy” agenda for America's future. As he so frequently does, Obama repeated the misleading assertion that America has only 2 percent of the world's proven oil reserves but uses 20 percent of all the oil consumed every year.

That claim is at such variance with the facts that even some liberal mainstream media people are beginning to question it. Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post's Fact Checker column, for example, concluded that, while “on the surface, the president's numbers are correct, based on official government data,” they are actually “two bits of information that bear little relationship to each other.” Thus, Kessler categorized Obama's claim as a “non sequitur fact.”

Kessler is right because Obama's 2 percent figure represents only “proven reserves,” which represent a narrow slice of what is actually underground. According to the federal Energy Information Administration, the 2 percent equals about 22 billion producible barrels. Obama would be more honest with Americans if he instead cited the government's estimates of “undiscovered technically recoverable oil,” of which there are 140 billion barrels. How much of that becomes available depends mostly on technology. With the development of horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing and other new technologies, there is little doubt Americans will get the vast majority of those 140 billion barrels.

But to appreciate the true magnitude of as-yet untapped oil resources in or near the United States, consider these facts: The Institute for Energy Research reported in December that government data puts the total recoverable resources in North America at more than 1.7 trillion barrels. “That is more than the world has used since the first oil well was drilled over 150 years ago in Titusville, Pennsylvania,” according to IER. “To put this in context, Saudi Arabia has about 260 billion barrels of oil in proved reserves. For comparative purposes, the technically recoverable oil in North America could fuel the present needs in the United States of seven billion barrels per year for around 250 years.”

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