Drilling Deep to Mislead on Oil Prices

It's still a bad idea to drill offshore for oil, and the issue is distorted when the media gives equivalence to both sides of the issue and repeats industry misinformation.

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On MSNBC, former Mississippi senator Trent Lott spoke about the need for more offshore drilling. The program did not mention that he is a lobbyist for companies such as Chevron, Shell, and Plains Exploration & Production Co. (AP/Alex Brandon)
On MSNBC, former Mississippi senator Trent Lott spoke about the need for more offshore drilling. The program did not mention that he is a lobbyist for companies such as Chevron, Shell, and Plains Exploration & Production Co. (AP/Alex Brandon)

As oil prices skyrocket, the issue of expanded drilling in America’s continental shelf and in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge are washing up once again on our shores like an oil slick. What was once a bad idea remains a bad idea, and to be fair, much of the media coverage reflects this. Even so, energy-industry supported misinformation has been repeated by large networks and outlets, distorting the issue to the detriment of all.

The U.S. Department of Energy summarizes the crux of the issue: “Access to the Pacific, Atlantic, and eastern Gulf regions would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030. Leasing would begin no sooner than 2012, and production would not be expected to start before 2017.”

The same is true of ANWR; in its May 2008 analysis of Crude Oil Production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration concluded that oil drilling in ANWR would not affect the U.S. oil supply for at least a decade: “The opening of the ANWR 1002 Area to oil and natural gas development is projected to increase domestic crude oil production starting in 2018.”

And yet, many drilling proponents argue that even though it will take some time to bring the oil to market, it’s better late than never. Rich Lowry, filling in for Sean Hannity on Fox News, argues that, “We’ve heard this argument before that drilling here in the U.S. will only help 10 years out, 13 years out or so. In fact, that’s basically what Bill Clinton said when he vetoed drilling in ANWR 10 or 13 years ago … so I’m just not sure it’s a very good reason to oppose drilling because it’s only going to help in the long term.”

In fact, the Department of Energy reports that even when the oil does come on line, domestic production would likely increase by a mere 7 percent, and “[b]ecause oil prices are determined on the international market… any impact on average wellhead prices is expected to be insignificant.”

Note also that, even with the expanded drilling, the United States consumes a quarter of the world’s oil, yet only sits on about two percent of the world’s known reserves. In other words, we’ll likely be highly dependent on foreign oil for a long time, even if we “drilled off of every beach, and inside every national park, refuge, and forest,” as a Center for American Progress fact-sheet notes, or we invested in an Apollo-like program to develop new energy sources in the coming decades.

CAP also notes a few more reasons why more drilling just doesn’t make sense:

  • Oil companies hold over 4,000 undeveloped leases in the western Gulf of Mexico. And the government already leases 44 million acres offshore, of which only 10.5 million—or one quarter—are producing oil or gas.
  • We lack the infrastructure to drill the oil. Existing drilling ships are “booked solid for the next five years,” and demand for deepwater rigs has driven up the price of such ships. Oil companies just don’t have the resources to explore oil fields in the desired offshore regions.

What, then, is driving the panic? The New York Times offers this in an editorial: “The only real beneficiaries will be the oil companies that are trying to lock up every last acre of public land before their friends in power—Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney—exit the political stage.” The piece concludes that the push for offshore drilling, framed as a solution to high gas prices, is “worse than a dumb idea. It is cruelly misleading.”

While the issue has been decently reported, with tough editorials in local newspapers and national ones, and in CNN reports such as this one, all is not well on the offshore front.

One problem with the reporting has been the creation of a false equivalence between the two sides—a common journalistic weakness that those who do not value truth are always eager to exploit. When Contessa Brewer aired President Bush’s flawed arguments on MSNBC, for instance, she noted simply that he was “pushing for help from Europe.” After airing a similar clip from President Bush, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked the deceptive and loaded question, “Will Congress agree to offshore oil drilling to help ease the price of gas?” as if the two were somehow inextricably related.

Worse has been some reporters’ willingness to allow lobbyists for oil companies speak to the matter without telling the audience they work for oil companies. This happened twice on MSNBC in recent weeks. On June 10, Andrea Mitchell hosted former Sens. John Breaux (D-LA) and Trent Lott (R-MS) to talk about energy policy. Lott called for “more drilling” of what Breaux described as “huge potential reserves” in parts of the country, adding, “we gotta do what we can to develop our own resources right here.” Mitchell told the audience that the two “formed a firm” together, but did not mention that the firm’s clients include oil and gas companies Chevron, Shell, and Plains Exploration & Production Co.

Eight days later on MSNBC, Mitchell hosted Republican National Committee deputy chairman Frank Donatelli to discuss a call to end the moratorium on offshore drilling, but did not mention that Donatelli was once a registered lobbyist for energy sector clients ExxonMobil and Dominion Resources.

A final sin—as always—is just plain making stuff up on the issue. CNN allowed the well-known fantast Glenn Beck to do just this on June 18, when he falsely claimed on his show that drilling in Alaska “would yield 100 million barrels a day.” As Media Matters noted, that exaggerates the figure by oh … 7,000 percent.

Sean Hannity took a similar vacation from reality on his radio when he said, “[W]e’ve got China, you know, joining with Cuba, they’re drilling 60 miles off our shores of Florida.” This was a completely erroneous claim made—but then retracted—by Vice President Dick Cheney. George Will also made the claim, but issued a retraction.

Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect oil companies—any more than cigarette companies—to tell the public the truth about the ancillary effects of their product, particularly when they see an opportunity to exploit a public panic. Truth is the media’s job. Too bad so many of its most highly paid and most visible members don’t always agree.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking.

George Zornick is a New York-based writer.

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Eric Alterman

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