Politics

Obama flunks science, history test in energy speech

Neil Munro White House Correspondent

President Barack Obama’s teleprompter and his bombast carried him over the line from accurate-yet-misleading into scientifically-incredible-and-misleading during his energy speech Thursday.

“America uses more than 20 percent of the world’s oil [and] if we drilled every square inch of this country — so we went to your house and we went to the National Mall and we put up those rigs everywhere — we’d still have only 2 percent of the world’s known oil reserves,” he declared to an audience of students.

“I help out Sasha occasionally with her math homework and I know that if you’ve got 2 and you’ve got 20, there’s a gap,” he added, prompting laughter, applause and roared approval from the audience at Maryland’s Prince George’s Community College.

The nation does only have 2 percent of the world’s “proven resources” of oil, according to government data and industry officials.

But the nation also has much sophisticated scientific data showing that the United States has enormous quantities of “technically recoverable [oil] resources” amounting to roughly 20 percent of the world’s reserves.

“U.S. proved reserves of oil total 19.1 billion barrels…. [and] technically recoverable oil in the United States is 145.5 billion barrels,” according to a Nov. 2010 report by the Congressional Research Service that relied on data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

“The idea that we don’t have much oil to develop in the United States is silly and is intentionally misleading,” said Kyle Isakower, vice-president of regulatory and economic policy at the American Petroleum Institute.

Politically, the speech was intended to redirect the public’s growing willingness to blame Obama for high gas prices.

Obama’s campaign-trail speech argued that his green-tech spending projects could move the nation into a future post-oil era where gas price-spikes would be minimized.

But in his rush to tag the GOP as out-of-date Obama also flubbed basic history.

For example, he claimed that President Rutherford Hayes “said about the telephone, ‘It’s a great invention, but who would ever want to use one?’”

The error in those 16 words was highlighted by Talking Points Memo, which quoted Nan Card, a curator at Ohio’s Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center.

Hayes “really was the opposite… He had the first telephone in the White House,” she told TPM. “He also had the first typewriter in the White House… Photographing people who came to the White House and visited at dinners and receptions was also very important to him,” she said.

TPM also tagged Obama’s claim that his critics would “have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society” in 1492 when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Instead, TPM cited a 1995 book by famed Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould which declared “there never was a period of ‘flat earth darkness’ among scholars… all major medieval scholars accepted the earth’s roundness as an established fact of cosmology.”

Obama’s historical errors were part of the speech and were presumably displayed on his teleprompter.

But his own bombast prompted his erroneous claim about the nation’s unused oil bounty.

The text of his speech declared that, “even if we drilled in every square inch of this country, we still only have 2 percent of the world’s known oil reserves.”

That text is accurate and misleading because the first future-tense clause — “if we drilled in every square inch” — is logically unconnected from the present-tense declaration in the second clause that “we still only have 2 percent.”

But Obama went off-text during his speech and inserted a “would” in the second clause.

That “would” connects the two clauses in a way that makes his “we’d still have only 2 percent” prediction scientifically incredible.

The statement is incredible because if the oil companies were allowed to drill “everywhere” on land and sea where their science shows huge supplies of untapped oil, they would likely prove the oil is there and enormously increase the nation’s 2 percent storehouse of world “proven reserves.”

“Not only are the [scientific] resource estimates pretty reliable, what we have found in practice is that they usually underestimate” the size of oil fields, Isakower said.

The nation also has far more oil that just in the “proven reserve” or the “technically recoverable” categories, said Isakower said.

For example, oil companies haven’t been allowed to explore off the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, he said, even though Obama has lauded Brazil for finding huge deposits in the Atlantic with the aid of American technology.

Yet more oil is stored in the huge “kerogen oil shale” deposits that President Jimmy Carter wanted to exploit, Isakower said.

“It is one of the largest supplies of oil in the world, but it is not included in the estimates,” he said, because it is still too expensive to extract.

However, new technologies allow oil-drillers to get at previously untapped forms of oil.

These technologies include sideways drilling and rock-fracturing, which have allowed natural-gas companies to produce so much gas that the price has fallen so low that the energy-intensive U.S. manufacturing sector has gained a novel cost advantage over foreign rivals. Commercial trucking companies are also converting their trucks to run on cheap natural-gas.

After misleading listeners about the size of the nation’s oil reserves, Obama compounded the confusion by lauding the science that says the nation has far more oil that he admits.

Americans should “place their bets on America’s future — on American workers, American ingenuity, American technology, American science, American-made energy, American efficiency, American productivity… to solve this problem,” he declared.

However, Obama’s emphasis was not on the oil companies’ science, but on the green-tech science, such as the technology developed by Solyndra, E-123, and Fister Automotive, all of which have hit technological hurdles and laid off people. Solyndra shut down entirely at a cost of the taxpayer of roughly $500 million.

Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney repeated a very similar math claim shortly after the community college speech.

But Carney’s statement was only misleading and correct because he refrained from using the president’s bombast about “drilling every square inch of this country” or his “would“ connecting word.

Instead, Carney stuck to the careful script and declared that “it is simply not an option to say that we can just keep drilling with 2 percent of the known oil reserves in the world when we consume 20 percent of the world’s oil.”

“I was a mediocre math student, but that doesn’t seem to work out,” Carney added.

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