The Washington Post

Digging into claims on oil production and energy regs

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee. (Chip Somodevilla/GETTY IMAGES)

— Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), March 10, 2011


“Last year, American oil production reached its highest level since 2003. Let me repeat that. Our oil production reached its highest level in seven years. . . . So any notion that my administration has shut down oil production might make for a good political sound bite, but it doesn’t match up with reality.”

— President Obama, March 11, March 11, 2011

Gas prices are soaring, and politicians are pointing fingers.

House Republicans are pushing forward with what they call the American Energy Initiative, which includes a bill sponsored by Upton that would block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. Our colleagues at Politifact have already labeled as “false” Upton’s claim that the bill would help roll back gasoline prices. Now we will take a look at his assertion that the EPA administrator actually agrees with the Republican effort.

Meanwhile, the White House has been playing defense. Both in a blog post and in the president’s news conference last week, the Obama administration has suggested that its efforts have led to an increase in domestic oil production.

The Facts

Let’s take the president’s statement first. President Obama seemed pretty proud of this statistic, repeating it twice. He is clearly pushing back against suggestions that the administration has shut down domestic oil production in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He touted his administration’s approval of  leases and drilling permits.

But his statement is an example of a “true” fact that is kind of meaningless.

Yes, it is correct that domestic production has increased in recent years. But it has little to do with administration policies. The key element in the increase is that oil companies have figured out how to extract oil from the Bakken Formation — a vast shale field in North Dakota and other states — through a technique known as hydrofracturing.

This effort is being led by companies investing billions of dollars to get at oil deposits once thought too expensive to extract, but then the oil price spike in 2008 inspired new investments. The spike also brought back lots of previously idle oil rigs and activated even some old stripper wells, helping to boost production. So for Obama to claim some credit for this is a lot like the rooster thinking the sun rises because he crows in the morning. (The White House declined to comment for the record.)

More to the point, the Energy Information Administration issued a new forecast three days before the president’s comments, saying that domestic crude oil production would decline by 110,000 barrels a day this year and a further 130,000 barrels in 2012. The EIA cited some production declines in Alaska, but also said that production in the Gulf of Mexico — where Obama imposed a drilling moratorium until October in the wake of the BP Deepwater spill — would fall by 240,000 barrels a day in 2011 and 200,000 additional barrels a day in 2012. The agency--which is independent from the government, and well-regarded for its projections--also predicted increases elsewhere in the country, such as from the Bakken Formation.

Meanwhile, House Republicans claim that the solution to rising gas prices is a bill they are pushing through Congress that would prevent the EPA from implementing Clean Air Act regulations, which they call a “back-door” effort to implement the cap-and-trade bill that was approved by the House but died in the Senate. The EPA says it is responding to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that greenhouse gases qualified as pollutants and could be regulated if the government determined they threatened the public.

That claim is the basis for assertions by Upton that the regulations will lead to huge jumps in gas prices, but that position was somewhat weakened when Maryam S. Brown, GOP counsel for a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, conceded last week at a hearing that the proposed EPA rules did not set a cap on emissions or contain other elements that were distinct to the cap-and-trade bill. (Here’s a link to the video. Click on “watch the archived webcast” and go to the 1:37:00 mark.)

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) cut off Brown every time she tried to add a caveat, so one can’t say for sure whether Brown had conceded this point. An Energy and Commerce spokesman responded that “EPA’s greenhouse gas regulations reflect the same policies and efforts to cap and reduce carbon emissions.”

Upton’s claim that Jackson agrees with the GOP effort was undercut at a different congressional hearing last week. (Look at the 36:50 mark of the “archived webcast.”) Upton is basing his claim on a 2009 quote by Jackson, in an article that concerned a cap on carbon pollution, which the administration at the time preferred to do through legislation. The Energy and Commerce spokesman also referenced testimony that Jackson gave on April 22, 2009, before the committee.

But with the failure of the bill to pass the Senate, the EPA developed new regulatory elements, such as the so-called “tailoring rule,” which is intended to shield smaller polluters from the effects of the Clean Air Act rules. Jackson’s 2009 quote appears to have little to do with the current regulatory effort — a fact confirmed by Jackson when she was asked directly about Upton’s claim. She replied: “It’s actually the opposite of the truth,” adding that she believed the GOP bill “would actually increase the amount of money that Americans have to pay for gasoline, diesel,” because it removed the EPA from enforcement of vehicle standards.

The Pinocchio Test

Obama’s statement was made to rebut more extreme claims. It may be technically true but two wrongs don’t make a right. Politically, it may look foolish if oil production declines as predicted by the Energy Information Administration. It’s worth one Pinocchio.

Upton’s statement is more problematic. Taking a two-year-old quote out of context and then pretending it supports your point of view — when the speaker denies it is relevant — is worth two Pinocchios.

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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.


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