Fact Checking CNN’s Fact Checkers

What is the value of fact checking if the fact-checkers don’t have a clue about the facts they’re checking?

CNN’s Fact check: Oil and natural gas production under Obama goes to great lengths to debunk two sentences uttered by Candidate Romney during Wednesday’s Presidential Debates:

All of the increase in natural gas and oil has happened on private land, not on government land. On government land, [the Obama] administration has cut the number of permits and licenses in half.

Romney also remarked that the production increase is “in spite of [Obama's] policies”, not because of them.

CNN concludes that Romney is guilty of “overstatement” and imprecision in his claims.

CNN is dead wrong. Romney was right.

As to the first sentence (“All of the increase in natural gas and oil has happened on private land, not on government land.”), CNN concludes:

There has been more oil and natural [gas] production on private lands than in federally controlled areas. So Romney is correct in pointing out an imbalance.

But it is an overstatement to say that “all of the increase” has been on private lands — since, by definition, new permits and licenses have been granted for federal lands (bringing in more gas and oil).

Wow. I don’t even understand the point they’re trying to make by referring to “permits and licenses”, which have nothing to do with actual production volumes. These two garbled sentences show that CNN’s fact-checkers have no understanding of the simple point Romney was making, and no understanding of how to tell if it’s true or not.

Production is production, volumes put in tanks or pipelines and sold. It’s not rocket science. It is an objective fact, not subject to interpretation, that domestic oil production is at levels not seen since 2003. Natural gas production is at all-time record highs. Even President Obama boasted of those facts during the debate.

At the request of Congress, the Energy Information Administration issued a report which directly addresses the amount of production of oil and gas from lands under federal jurisdiction (offshore, onshore and Indian tribal lands) for the period 2003-2011.

The two accompanying graphs show EIA’s findings. The first graph shows the total energy produced from federal lands (oil, natural gas and natural gas liquids), while the second shows the percentage of domestic production of each product. In each case, oil production on federal lands is flat to declining. Natural gas is declining precipitously.

As to his first assertion, Mitt Romney was correct, and not guilty of “overstatement”. Total domestic production of oil is up dramatically, primarily in the Bakken of North Dakota/Montana, the Eagle Ford shale of South Texas and the Permian Basin of West Texas. Gas is up in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. All of these areas are under state jurisdiction. Texas has zero federal acreage; the other areas are mostly on private lands with only a smattering of federal ownership. If federal acreage were responsible for any material portion of the national production increase, these curves would be headed north, not south. (The only reason the oil curves are flat is because of new deepwater fields in the offshore, fields that were discovered, permitted and sanctioned for production prior to the Obama administration. So, Mr. President, “You didn’t build that.”)

As to the second statement (“On government land, [the Obama] administration has cut the number of permits and licenses in half.”), CNN concludes:

Romney’s claim that Obama’s administration has “cut the number of permits and licenses in half” for federal lands is also not on the mark.

True, there has been a significant drop — one tied, in part, to the unprecedented Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Yet the actual numbers of permits and licenses haven’t been “cut … in half.” As mentioned above (and including data from part of the Bush administration), there has been a 42% decrease in leases and 37% decrease in drilling permits — not 50%, as Romney implied.

My first reaction was, “Close enough for government work.” But the highlighted language shows that the time-frame has been cherry-picked so as to refute Romney’s statement. During the early part of the Obama administration, review of permitting and plans continued on a status quo. Obama’s appointees in the agencies had bigger fish to fry: wind energy. With the BP spill, permitting ground to a halt for months. There were no federal offshore lease sales for over a year (previously on a twice-yearly basis). Onshore, dozens of active leases were summarily cancelled.

If you let me pick the time frame, I can show almost anything said by anybody to be imprecise.

As a professional engineer with 34 years of industry experience, I found Mitt Romney’s executive-level command of the relevant facts with respect to the oil and gas industry and energy policy to be impressive.

CNN, not so much. Their fact-checkers seem so intent on “exposing” Romney that they bypassed the part about understanding the issues before they cry foul.

I suggest their time might be better spent fact-checking President Obama’s understanding of the industry. He maintains he supports and encourages increased energy production, while the tax policies he advocates would clearly discourage domestic drilling.

Cross-posted at my energy blog.

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