Malice or incompetence?

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on August 5, 2008

Or both?

Time magazine came out with an article this week ,which curiously isn't labeled opinion, that misstates what Barack Obama said and then comes to the conclusion that Obama was right all along when he said that proper tire inflation and regular tune-ups can save as much gas as we would net if we were to drill off the outer continental shelf.

The Bush Administration estimates that expanded offshore drilling could increase oil production by 200,000 bbl. per day by 2030. We use about 20 million bbl. per day, so that would meet about 1% of our demand two decades from now. Meanwhile, efficiency experts say that keeping tires inflated can improve gas mileage 3%, and regular maintenance can add another 4%. Many drivers already follow their advice, but if everyone did, we could immediately reduce demand several percentage points. In other words: Obama is right.

Actually, Obama isn't right -- and neither is Time magazine reporter Michael Grunwald.

Here's ABC News' Jake Tapper, who did a far better reporting job.

It means that if every American was running around with significantly underinflated tires and improperly tuned cars, then, yes, Sen. Obama is right, the savings from inflating the tires and tuning the cars could arguably match or exceed current output from the OCS.

However, since estimates of significant tire underinflation affect only about a quarter of the cars on road -- as we noted above with the NHTSA statistics -- and it’s highly unlikely that 100% of the cars are in need of tune- ups at any given time, the maximum savings amount is probably closer to 10%, Verrastro says.

"So the production offset is more likely to approach 800 thousand barrels per day – a tidy sum and a worthwhile target for savings, but not equal to OCS output," he rules. "Finally, without knowing what production volumes could be expected from lifting the ban on OCS drilling moratoria, it’s impossible to assert that taking these fuel savings actions would exceed future offshore oil volumes, and in fact, one might argue that the combination of achieving these savings AND developing new supply would doubly enhance US energy security."

That's a better reporting job, but still inaccurate. Obama said that tune-ups and tire-inflation would equal not what we're getting out of the OCS now, but what we would get if we lifted all the prohibitions on offshore drilling everywhere else.

Nope, to get the best reporting job, we've got to go to the blogosphere and Powerline's John Hinderaker.

But there are more devious errors lurking behind Time's claim that "Obama is right." Notice the curious formula that Grunwald uses to quantify the energy potential of the outer continental shelf:

The Bush administration estimates that expanded offshore drilling could increase oil production by 200,000 bbl. [barrels] per day by 2030.

That equates to 73,000,000 barrels per year. Which may sound like a lot, but amounts to only four-tenths of one percent of the OCS's 18 billion barrels. Further, why is Time not only putting out an absurdly low number, but also talking about the year 2030? The implication seems to be that the oil wouldn't flow until then, or maybe wouldn't peak until then, but such a claim would be patently false.

To get to the bottom of the puzzle, I tracked down the source of the statistic that Grunwald attributes to the "Bush administration." I'm pretty sure this is it: the Annual Energy Outlook 2007 with Projections to 2030, as published by the Energy Information Administration. This graph, I'm confident, is the source of the "200,000 barrels a day in 2030" claim:


That's right: the EIA, writing in early 2007, assumed that oil prices would decline from their 2006 peak; that in 2008, the price of crude oil would be around $60 a barrel; that it would continue to decline until around 2013 to a low of about $50 a barrel; and that the price would then gradually increase to a little under $60 a barrel by 2030. Those were the assumptions on which EIA concluded that it would not be economically profitable to get most OCS oil out of the ground.

Earth to Michael Grunwald: that isn't what happened. The EIA was wrong. Currently crude oil is at around $120 per barrel, not $60. At the elevated prices we are now experiencing and are expected to experience in the future, vastly greater quantities of OCS oil (or ANWR oil, or shale oil) can profitably be exploited, and those resources can make a vastly greater contribution to our economic well-being.

When we read wildly inaccurate reporting in the mainstream media, it's often hard to tell whether the reporter is incompetent, or is deliberately trying to deceive. You can make your own guess. For now, suffice it to say that Time's attempt to rehabilitate Obama's tire-inflation gaffe is a failure.

To answer Hinderaker's question: Can't it be both?

0 comments on “Malice or incompetence?”

  1. I don't believe cars get tune-ups any longer.

    A couple of years ago, I had my 2004 Taurus in for something or other. When I picked it up, the service writer said they'd had a technical service bulletin on my series and they fixed it.
    Figuring they'd taken a non-spec widget off and replaced it with an in-spec widget, I asked what they'd done.
    Got a computer download. Too much for this aging head. It improved my gas mileage immediately.
    But I haven't had a tune-up in probably fifteen years.

  2. You're absolutely right. Any mid-90s car or newer has a computer in there that makes tune-ups a thing of the past. Instead, if something's going wrong, you get a check engine light and take it into the shop and they can fix it pretty quick.


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