The Fact Checker: True But False

U.S. oil resources: President Obama’s ‘non sequitur facts’


“As a country that has 2 percent of the world's oil reserves, but uses 20 percent of the world's oil — I'm going to repeat that — we've got 2 percent of the world oil reserves; we use 20 percent.  What that means is, as much as we're doing to increase oil production, we're not going to be able to just drill our way out of the problem of high gas prices.  Anybody who tells you otherwise either doesn’t know what they’re talking about or they aren’t telling you the truth.”

— President Obama, speech in North Carolina, March 7, 2012

 “The United States consumes more than 20 percent of the world’s oil, but we only have 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves — 20 percent we use; we only produce 2 percent.  And no matter what we do, it's not going to get much above 3 percent.  So we're still going to have this huge shortfall.  That's why if we really want energy security and energy independence, we've got to start looking at how we use less oil, and use other energy sources that we can renew and that we can control, so we are not subject to the whims of what's happening in other countries.”

— Obama, speech on American energy, March 1, 2012

“After all, oil is a finite resource.  We consume more than 20 percent of the world’s oil, but have less than 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves.”

— Obama, remarks on the BP oil spill, June 15, 2010

This appears to be one of President Obama’s favorite facts — he says it almost every time he speaks about energy issues — but readers are getting confused. We have received repeated queries from readers asking for an explanation of this startling bit of information.

 This is actually an interesting area of inquiry. On the surface, the president’s numbers are correct, based on official government data. But this is a good example of what we call “non sequitur facts” — two bits of information that actually bear little relationship to each other.

 The president is trying to make the case that the world has finite oil resources, and the United States — the world’s biggest oil consumer — needs to use less oil in the future. But using “oil reserves” as a key metric gives an incomplete picture of U.S. oil resources.  (Note: the analysis that follows draws in part on a comprehensive Congressional Research Service report on oil resource definitions. We have embedded a copy at the end for readers seeking more information.)


The Facts

“Proven reserves,” whether for oil, natural gas or coal, has a very strict definition, in part because reserves are considered actual assets owned by companies. The oil must have been discovered, confirmed and economically recoverable, with at least 90 percent certainty. The level of reserves, in fact, may vary depending on the price of oil, since a higher price may suddenly make some finds economically viable.

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