NY Times ignored actual oil survey, previous Times reporting; overstated refuge's oil "reserves" to be 10 billion barrels


An October 20 New York Times article by reporter Felicity Barringer on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's decision to allow oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) cited the Department of Energy to make the deceptive claim that the refuge "sit[s] atop reserves of 10 billion barrels of oil." But as Media Matters for America has noted, the 10-billion-barrel figure is misleading, encompassing both a larger area for drilling than what the Senate committee voted to authorize and including oil that may not be economically worthwhile to recover. Moreover, the article's description of this figure as "reserves" attached a certainty to that figure upon which previous Times reporting cast doubt.

The 10-billion-barrel figure the Times article cited comes from a 1998 U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) assessment of the possible oil in the ANWR area. The USGS reported that 10.4 billion barrels was the average likely amount of "technically recoverable" oil for the entire surveyed region. The Senate committee, however, voted to authorize oil development and production only in the "Arctic National Wildlife Refuge 1002 Coastal Plain Area," an area that is smaller than what the USGS surveyed in making its assessment. The USGS found this smaller region's average likely amount of "technically recoverable" oil to be 7.7 billion barrels -- not 10 billion.

The amount of oil that could be obtained by opening ANWR is further diminished by cost. As of this writing, oil prices sit at roughly $60 a barrel, or $47.85 in 1996 dollars (which the USGS report uses). The USGS assessed how much of the oil that is technically recoverable would be economically feasible to obtain; and, while the USGS report did not assess how much oil could be profitably recovered above a $40 price per barrel (1996 dollars), if the trend shown until that point were to continue to the current $47.85, an average of approximately 7 billion barrels of oil would be economically recoverable.

In addition, the article's claim that ANWR "sit[s] atop reserves of 10 billion barrels" suggests a certainty that is not warranted. As a February 21 New York Times article noted, the 1998 USGS "estimates are of 'petroleum resources' -- potential oil deposits -- instead of 'petroleum reserves,' which refers to oil that has been discovered." The current article's use of the latter term obscures the fact that the actual amount of oil in ANWR is uncertain; the USGS estimates at the 95 percent confidence level only 3.4 billion barrels as technically recoverable.

From the October 20 New York Times article "Senate Panel Approves Arctic Drilling":

The plain is a way station on the annual migration of thousands of caribou and many more migratory birds. It is also part of the range of musk oxen, grizzly bears, arctic foxes and a whole suite of other wildlife that regularly journey through the coastal flatlands at the edge of the Beaufort Sea.

The Department of Energy has estimated that the coastal plain and the area immediately offshore sit atop reserves of 10 billion barrels of oil, and the Bush administration argues that increasingly tight and increasingly expensive supplies of gasoline, home heating oil and natural gas require the nation to exploit available resources, like those in the refuge.

Posted In
Environment & Science, Drilling, Energy
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