Aug 1 2008

Failing to Do the Math on Oil

Support for offshore drilling increases following media misinformation

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Bryan Burke

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Bryan Burke

When Republican presidential contender John McCain called on June 17 for an end to the federal ban on offshore oil drilling, corporate media framing of the debate that followed helped sell his position. Journalists focused more on the political calculations of the move and its supposed populist appeal—while downplaying the question of whether or not offshore drilling would do what supporters argued it would.

Much of the coverage led voters to believe that such drilling would have an immediate effect on oil prices. “Sen. John McCain has come out with an idea for how to solve the nation’s current oil-related energy crisis,” announced NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams (6/17/08). On ABC World News, anchor Charles Gibson explained (6/18/08) that George W. Bush’s father had issued an executive order banning offshore drilling: “Today, the president said that reversing his father’s decision would be one way to drive down the price of gas. At today’s prices, there’s $2.5 trillion of oil off the coast. Little wonder it’s getting so much attention.”

Many reporters also found ways to play on themes of populism. Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote in the New York Times (6/20/08) that the drilling question is “just the kind of pocketbook matter that resonates strongly with the working-class voters.”

Skeptics of the drilling plan, meanwhile, had their motives questioned. Sean Hannity of Fox‘s Hannity & Colmes (6/17/08) asked guest George Will, “Do you think there’s an anti-capitalist sentiment behind this, too?” “Good heavens, yes,” responded Will.

Meanwhile, the likelihood that the proposed drilling would actually lower gas prices was discussed as an afterthought, and presented as essentially unknowable. A New York Times story headlined “Will $4 Gasoline Trump a 27-Year-Old Ban?” (6/19/08) just wondered at “the question [of] whether Americans are feeling enough pain at the pump to force their elected leaders to go along, and whether it will make any real difference if they do.”

Even when working with estimates about the amount of oil that will be extracted, reporters were unable to answer this question. ABC World News business correspondent Betsy Stark reported (6/18/08): “Nearly 18 billion barrels of oil buried off the continental United States, about two-and-a-half years’ worth of U.S. consumption at current rates. Is that enough oil to make a difference in the lives of American consumers?”

Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (Beat the Press, 6/19/08) did do the math. Using government estimates of the amount of oil to be found offshore, Baker figured that the price of gas could fall from $4.00 to around $3.92 a gallon as a result of drilling there. Baker pointed out that “without numbers like these, the public has no way to assess the relative merits of McCain and Obama’s positions. The media should provide them.”

But the media didn’t even need to do their own calculations. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently released a report (Annual Energy Outlook 2007) calculating that the proposed drilling would subtract no more than a few cents from the price of a gallon of gas . . . more than 20 years from now.

Journalists who included the EIA study in their reports tended to ignore this finding. Fox‘s Fred Barnes (Special Report, 7/8/08) declared that “the Energy Information Administration says gas and oil are, decades from now, still going to make up 85 percent of America’s energy needs, 85 percent.” Charles Krauthammer wrote (Washington Post, 6/20/08) of the “75 billion barrels of oil that have been declared off-limits, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.” Neither pundit noted that the report they were citing said that the policy they were arguing for would have a tiny impact on prices.

Meanwhile, pundits point out that many Americans are changing their minds about drilling. Slightly more than half of Americans supported offshore drilling in May, whereas today 74 percent of Americans are in favor of overturning the ban (Gallup, 5/28/08; Zogby, 6/20/08).

MSNBC‘s Chris Matthews wondered on Hardball (6/17/08):

If the voters of the United States . . . had a plebiscite and everybody got to vote, wouldn’t [they] vote right now to open up the Arctic wilderness, wouldn’t [they] vote right now for offshore if it could get them $2 gas? Wouldn’t they be very pragmatic and say, “Enough of the environmentalism, we want the cheaper gas?”

With media coverage like this—suggesting that offshore drilling could cut gas prices in half rather than knocking off a few cents a couple of decades from now—it’s no wonder 64 percent of voters reportedly believe (Rasmussen Reports, 6/17/08) that gas prices would decrease as a result of the proposed drilling.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote in the New York Times (6/20/08) that “it will now be up to Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush to convince Americans that their conclusion on drilling is correct. Democrats say it’s a tough case to make.” But it may not be so hard with the media helping.