A few months ago we’d hardly heard of them, and now just about everybody with a microphone or keyboard seems to have become a “fact checker.” I like the idea of checking on the tales politicians tell, but there are pitfalls.
Fact checkers obviously need a little time to do their work well. Quick shots from the hip can be dead wrong. One such caused me to open my glazed eyes wide just after last night’s Obama-Romney debate ended. An ABC-TV fact checker said Romney was right and Obama was wrong in a heated exchange about oil and gas production from public lands.
I know a thing or two about that after 30 years of living in the Intermountain West. Most of that time, I worked for the U.S. Forest Service, which manages 31 million acres of public land in the region. Questions about oil and gas permits, operations, and production abounded, and I often had do some research to answer them.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages far more acres of public land than does the Forest Service, and it also keeps records of permits and oil and gas production on all federal lands plus off-shore drilling areas. Careful fact checkers went to BLM records to make their judgments the day after the debates. They reached a different conclusion than the ABC guy who gave his “expert” analysis minutes after the debate ended.
Romney said oil production was down 14 percent each year (of Obama’s years in office) and gas production was down 9 percent. He repeated that assertion twice. He said that was because “the president cut in half the number of licenses and permits for drilling on federal land and in federal water.”
Obama said production on federal public lands is up, and what Romney said “is just not true.”
The ABC fact checker said Romney was correct because leases issued dropped from 3,499 in fiscal year 2008 to 2,188 in fiscal year 2011, nearly the 50 percent decline he claimed. However, had the checker looked carefully at BLM records and been knowledgeable about federal operations, he would have known that government fiscal years start on Oct. 1. So the decline in permit approvals started during the Bush administration.
An alert newsman also should have noticed a large drop in 2010. That’s because Obama ordered a moratorium on oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico so all involved could get their acts together following the worst oil spill in the history of drilling in federal areas. Since then, permit approvals have been increasing gradually, a fact Obama mentioned during the discussion.
Gas production is down on federal lands as Romney said, but it is not because of a lack of permits. New technology, particularly in controversial “fracking” operations, has increased gas production immensely across much of the U.S.
Extraction companies will go where the low-hanging fruit is. That usually is on private or state lands where, in most cases, environmental regulations are less stringent than on the federal lands. Also, drilling new gas wells generally is easier and thus less costly on eastern lands than in rugged western terrain. Existing access roads also invite drillers to lands other than the often sparsely roaded western public land areas.
What about the charge that oil production on public lands has declined 14 percent in each of the last 4 years? BLM records show the truth is it has increased 16.6 percent during Obama’s time in office. It is interesting to note that during the last 4 years of George Bush’s tenure as President, oil production decreased by 16.8 percent on federal lands.
Romney deserves a very long nose on this one. The ABC fact checker deserves a zero performance rating.