Obama falsely claimed U.S. oil production at an all-time high

24 Jan 2012

In several speeches and interviews last year, Obama claimed that U.S. oil production is now at an all-time high. That’s simply not true. I hope that in his State of the Union today—which many say will focus heavily on energy—he doesn’t repeat this mistake. [See end for update.]

To give a couple of examples: In an interview last April, Obama said, “Now, I try to be honest with the American people… We’ve got to continue to increase production. And U.S. oil production was at the highest level that it ever was last year—that it’s ever been.” And in July he said, “We’re producing more oil in this country than we ever have.”I know statistics can be bent around to say a lot of things. But there’s no way to fudge the numbers to make these statements correct—as the government’s own statistics show. While there has been a small uptick in production in the past few years, U.S. crude oil production reached its peak in 1970 at nearly 10 million barrels a day. We now produce less than 6 million barrels of crude a day—less than two-thirds as much as at the peak.

Politicians rarely discuss this long slide in oil production, with one of the few exceptions being Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), who has delivered dozens of speeches on the floor of Congress about this issue. As far as I know, the last time a serving President mentioned that U.S. oil production had passed its peak was Jimmy Carter, back in 1977.

To Obama’s credit, he has repeatedly argued against many Republicans’ calls to “drill, baby, drill.” In those same speeches and interviews where he made the false claims about U.S. oil production, Obama also argued “we can’t drill our way out of the problem.” History suggests that’s true. Since the 1970 peak of U.S. oil production, the country has drilled more than 600,000 new oil wells, opened up the supergiant Prudhoe oilfield in Alaska, and made huge technological strides that have improved our ability to find oil and to get it out of the ground—even from extreme areas such as the Gulf’s ultra-deep waters, the site of BP’s ill-fated Deepwater Horizon platform.

Despite all this effort and technical progress, U.S. oil production has continued on its general downward trajectory. In the past several years, drilling has climbed to a 25-year high—and yet there has so far been only a small uptick in oil production. Meanwhile, the cost of drilling wells has skyrocketed. This history makes a powerful case for why “drill, baby, drill” is not the solution.

The recent boost in production has come in part because of a boom in shale oil production, especially in North Dakota. But even if shale oil production continues growing at a fast clip, U.S. production is likely to increase only a bit over the next few years, and then flatline from there, according to 2011 projections by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. More recent projections released this week foresee U.S. crude oil production going up to 6.7 million barrels a day by 2020, and then declining again, back to about 6.1 million barrels a day by 2035.

The EIA’s forecasts over the past several years have been proven, again and again, to be overly optimistic. If that turns out to be the case once more, it seems we’ll be facing not flat production, but a further decline. But even if the latest EIA projections are right, the U.S. is not going to get production up near the level of the 1970 peak, and the country would still be heavily dependent on imported oil. If things play out this way, it will be much like what happened after Alaska’s supergiant Prudhoe oilfield began production: A small bump up, and then a continuation of the long decline.

What’s worse, it’s not just the U.S. that’s facing a peak of oil production.

After the 1970s energy crises, industrialized countries set up a watchdog group, the International Energy Agency, to warn about energy shortages. In recent years their chief economist, Fatih Birol, has issued a series of increasingly strong warnings. In April, he upped the ante, saying, “We think that [global] crude oil production has already peaked in 2006.”

Since that year, the oil industry has been pumping hard just to stay in place, with production staying roughly flat, despite prices having risen more than four-fold since 2000, including two huge oil price spikes—one in 2008, and one that is just easing off now.

If we are indeed at the peak of global oil production now, it is a problem of almost unimaginable scale, since, as Birol has warned, the world is not prepared for this, and high oil prices threaten the global economy. Similarly, in the 1970s, we weren’t ready for the peak and decline of U.S. oil production.

It will take bold leadership to cope with the peak and then decline of world oil production. But first, we need to start at home. We need a President who will explain to the American people simply and clearly that our oil production is in a long decline, and that there’s no easy solution.

Last summer, Obama stopped talking about U.S. oil production, as other problems overtook public attention. But with oil prices set to rise as tensions build with Iran, I expect Obama and other politicians will be saying a lot more about oil. So far the GOP candidates have not said anything so specific about U.S. oil production, instead laying out vague hopes—such as Romney’s call for energy independence. I’m no fan of Republicans’ plans, either. With the possible exception of Jon Huntsman, all the presidential candidates’ plans amounting to little more than “drill, baby, drill.”

When—or if—politicians start talking specifics again, let’s hope they don’t fall back on false hope, with increasing talk of an American energy renaissance. But whatever people say about the future, at least I hope we can be honest about the past, and put our current position in a long-term perspective. That’s not too much to hope for, is it?

UPDATE: In the State of the Union, Obama did talk a fair amount about energy, and he said that U.S. oil production is at its highest in eight years—that is, since 2003. This is a line he also used last year, and which is true. But it fails to tell us where we are now, in a longer-term perspective—and that, I think, is the real problem with our thinking about oil production.

UPDATE: Tweets on this post:

from @drgrist: Listen to @masoninman: Contra Obama, US oil production not at historic high; in fact, in inexorable decline. bit.ly/xa84vc

from @dvergano: Failing Gracefully – Obama has chance for “do-over” on highest U.S. oil production claims: http://bit.ly/xTwWyS #SOTU #energy

from @nelderini: Is US oil production at an all-time high, as Obama has claimed? Uh, no. @masoninman reviews the data: j.mp/xMhNuL


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »