Media Try to Cool Down Oil Drilling Fever

     Recent polls from Reuters/Zogby, Gallup and Rasmussen revealed that a majority of Americans support increased domestic oil drilling and refining, yet many in the news media have continued to find fault with that approach.

     Instead of reporting the issue in a neutral manner, the media have promoted the views of environmentalists, complained that it would take “years” until more oil is available, and misled the public about so-called “idle” oil fields already leased to companies by the government.

     On the “Today” show June 23, NBC’s Ann Curry even asked Newsweek’s Howard Fineman whether supporting offshore drilling would result in a voter “backlash” against Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

     “Could his strategy with offshore oil drilling hurt him with independents? I mean, is there a possibility that he faces a possible backlash, giving the Democrats an opportunity to tie him even more to George Bush?” said Curry.

     Fineman and Curry never mentioned the Reuters/Zogby poll that found 59.6 percent of Americans surveyed “favor government efforts to boost domestic drilling and refinery construction,” according to a June 18 Reuters report.

     CBS “Evening News” stacked its story against drilling on the very night the poll came out. That night correspondent Bill Whitaker cited “bipartisan” opposition to offshore drilling “in California, which suffered a devastating oil spill from a rig off Santa Barbara in 1969.” But he didn’t balance his own story evenly with proponents and opponents; instead he promoted the “green” views of environmentalists and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

     Proponents of opening up currently restricted areas to offshore drilling argue that technology has made tremendous strides since the 1969 Santa Barbara incident and is much more environmentally friendly. Cathy Landry of the American Petroleum Institute told the Business & Media Institute that since 1980, only .001 percent has been spilled of the 1.4 million barrels of oil produced daily. She was citing the Minerals Management Services, a U.S. agency that oversees offshore drilling.

     USA Today embraced alternative energy on June 13, calling it “a surefire way to cut fuel costs,” but downplayed increased domestic oil production with its sidebar headline: “Drilling more helps – a little.”

     Industry representatives also say that how long it takes to produce oil is a “silly” argument and that the claim of “idle” leases is a “fallacy.” According to API, leases are listed as “nonproducing” throughout the lengthy exploration phases that are necessary to determine whether oil exists in the area in commercial quantity.

     CBS “Early Show” co-host Harry Smith touted the idea of a four-day work week to ease drivers’ costs, but allowed his interviewee Gov. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) to dismiss the idea of more drilling.

     “Another bad idea,” said Richardson. “One-track mind. Drill, drill, drill.” Instead of countering Richardson’s remarks himself or supplying the counterargument from an expert, Smith merely told Richardson “you sound a little bit like when you used to be a presidential candidate.”

     CNN also let Richardson give his two cents on the June 22 “Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer” on the issue rather than consulting non-political energy experts. Politicians on both sides were interviewed about McCain and Obama’s energy plans. Richardson’s discussion of oil drilling lasted more than seven-and-a-half minutes. A taped segment later in the program included the CEO of Chevron but focused on oil executives “in the hot seat.” It was less than two minutes long. The only economist included in the oil drilling debate was Clinton administration official Robert Reich.

Missing the ‘Trend’

     “Today” wanted to know “which candidate is more in touch with the voters on energy,” so Ann Curry asked NBC analyst and Newsweek senior Washington correspondent Howard Fineman on June 23.

     “Well, according to our poll it’s Obama, but the McCain forces think they’ve got a winner here [with offshore drilling] and they’re gonna pursue it,” replied Fineman.

     Fineman even praised Newsweek polling (discussing an overall poll about Obama and McCain) when he told Curry “we have a tendency sometimes to pick up on a trend before others do.”

     But Curry and Fineman missed the obvious “trend” that Reuters/Zogby found in its June 12-14 poll. According to a June 18 Reuters report, 59.6 percent of Americans surveyed actually support more domestic drilling and refinery construction.

     The San Francisco Chronicle also reported on June 23 that “a recent Gallup poll found that 57 percent of Americans would support drilling in offshore or wilderness areas that are currently off-limits to drilling.”

     “Frank Newport, the poll’s editor in chief, contends that Republicans’ push for more drilling is now ‘generally in sync with majority American public opinion,’” said the Chronicle.

Networks Split on Offshore Coverage

     ABC, CBS and NBC evening news shows all broadcast stories about outer continental shelf oil drilling on June 18.

     All three networks talked to left-wing environmentalists and Democrats opposed to repealing the ban, but at least “World News” and “Nightly News” gave “equal time” to proponents of offshore drilling, according to a June 19 CyberAlert from the Media Research Center.

     CBS “Evening News” however “quickly deteriorated into a brief against the proposal with opponents and those saying it would do nothing to lower prices getting twice as many soundbites (4) as supporters (2),” wrote the MRC’s Brent Baker.

     That report from Bill Whitaker cited Schwarzenegger and environmentalists who oppose the plan and concluded that “California is largely green.” It also included University of California professor Severin Borenstein who said, “Even if we approved oil drilling off the coast today, it would have no effect on the price of oil and no effect on the price we're paying for gasoline for five or 10 years.”

     At least both ABC and NBC included expert opinions to the contrary. NBC quoted energy analyst Daniel Yergin of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, who said it “would send a psychological message to the world oil market which would affect prices before any of that new oil actually started to arrive.”

It Will Take Too Long, So Let’s Never Get Started

     Torn from a procrastinator’s page-a-day calendar, one theme in media coverage of offshore drilling was that it would simply be too long before that supply became available. Another was that the price impact would be “insignificant.”

     Media using the gas price talking point are in sync with Obama’s presidential campaign. Obama opposes drilling and, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, “Obama also insists ending the drilling ban would have little effect on gas prices.”

     Citing the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the June 23 San Francisco Chronicle said it if the moratorium on offshore drilling were lifted, it would take “until 2017 before oil began to flow.” “The agency estimated that U.S. oil production would increase by 7 percent – about 200,000 barrels a day – by 2030, which it said would have an ‘insignificant’ impact on oil prices.” The June 19 New York Times made the same point.

     Even so, domestic supply isn’t the only factor affecting gas prices. As Yergin said, it could “send a psychological message to the world oil market.”

     And what’s the alternative – what does investing in alternative energy do for gas prices?

     According to Fortune magazine, it would mean costlier fossil fuels in the meantime.

     “[T]o encourage a transition toward alternatives, Obama favors legislation that would make fossil fuel more expensive. Doesn’t that mean more pain to come under an Obama presidency?” said the Fortune profile of Obama on June 23.

     “‘There is no doubt that in the short term, adapting to this new energy economy is going to carry some costs,’” replied Obama.

     Former Democratic presidential candidate and former energy secretary Bill Richardson also has been saying drilling would take too long, on CBS and in multiple CNN reports recently.

     “You can’t drill your way out of the problem. Now it’s offshore where it’s going to take years, 10 years to start getting some of the oil out of the ocean,” complained Richardson on “Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer” June 22. Presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama has also used this talking point.

     A report from the Interior Department cited by on June 10 showed that there are about “139 billion barrels of undiscovered oil on U.S. territory, onshore and offshore combined, much of it restricted from extraction because of environmental regulations.”

     Cathy Landry of API said that the “10-year” argument is “silly.” “You can’t say that. It’s a silly argument. Ten years from now we’ll be even worse off that we are now if don’t do anything,” said Landry. “If we had opened the OCS [outer continental shelf] 10 years ago we wouldn’t be in this problem.”

     In addition to CNN, Gov. Richardson appeared on the June 18 “Early Show” on CBS. He bluntly expressed his opposition to offshore drilling – and the “10-year” argument – without opposition from another guest or co-host Harry Smith.

     “Another bad idea. It’s going to take 10 years to fully get that oil out of the ocean. It’s a fragile ecosystem,” said Richardson. “[T]his president, all he wants to do is drill, drill, drill. There’s very little on conservation, on fuel efficiency for vehicles. Just last week the Congress failed to pass a solar tax credit. Give more incentives to renewable energy.”

     “Early Show” co-host Harry Smith didn’t challenge Richardson’s position, consult any other expert, or point out that renewable energy will also be time-consuming and costly.

     According to the June 22 USA Today, “Many of the solutions lawmakers are proposing — from drilling in the Alaskan wilderness to boosting the use of renewable energy — would take years or even decades to have an impact.”

     “[D]eveloping alternative energy also takes time. The most ambitious proposal would require the nation to get 25% of its energy from renewable sources within 25 years,” said USA Today.

     And developing new technologies takes money in addition to time.

     According to the June 23 Denver Post, “Oil would need to hit $150 to $200 a barrel and stay there before private investment moves heavily into alternative fuels and transportation, said John Kilduff, energy analyst at MF Global in New York.”

     Creating alternatives to oil and gas isn’t as simple as flipping a switch or passing a mandate. Biofuels requirements for corn-based ethanol have already caused food inflation and global food riots.

     Another alternative energy being touted as the “answer” is cellulosic ethanol. But even the left-leaning environmental Web site has said, “A quiet consensus seems to be forming among people you'd think would know the facts on the ground: cellulosic ethanol, touted as five years away from viability for decades now, may never be viable. ” (emphasis added by Grist)

     As for solar and other renewable sources like wind power that the media promote, Duke Energy spokesman Tom Shiel told BMI that both have serious disadvantages: the sources are inconsistent (the sun goes down and the wind stops blowing) and currently we don’t have the technology to store the power on a large scale.

‘Idle’ Leases?

     Another common criticism of offshore exploration and oil drilling in the news was the Democratic talking point that companies have enough drilling area already. Politicians have claimed oil companies aren’t using the land or ocean they have access to, though industry representatives say that it is untrue.

     Bill Whitaker used that argument in his June 18 anti-drilling report for CBS: “Democrats say oil companies haven’t yet drilled on some 68 million acres offshore and on that they’ve already leased.”

     The Wall Street Journal repeated it on June 19: “Democrats have sought to reframe the debate over drilling by arguing that it is possible to increase domestic oil production without opening new lands. They point out that the industry already has access to tens of millions of acres believed to contain oil and gas, but are producing on only about a quarter of that.”

     Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., attacked oil and gas companies in a CNN “Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer” appearance June 15.

     “They’re [oil and gas companies] not drilling. They like the status quo. They like the way things are going,” said Van Hollen. He also promoted “use it or lose it” legislation that would take back leases from oil and gas companies if companies aren’t drilling.

     Blitzer did challenge the point, but neither CBS nor the Journal story pointed out how misleading that argument was. Red Cavaney, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, wrote an op-ed for the Journal on June 20 exposing the argument’s flaws.

     “[C]laims of ‘idle’ leases are a diversionary feint,” said Cavaney. “A company bids for and buys a lease because it believes there is a possibility that it may yield enough oil or natural gas to make the cost of the lease, and the costs of exploration and production, commercially viable. The U.S. government received $3.7 billion from company bids in a single lease sale in March 2008.”

     According to Cavaney leases are listed as “nonproducing” throughout the exploration and evaluation phases and even as delineation wells are drilled, permits are obtained and production facilities are installed. “There is nothing ‘idle’ about it,” said Cavaney.

     Cavaney continued, “Exploration is time consuming, very costly and involves a great deal of risk … For exploration to take place, our companies need access to the areas – offshore and onshore – that we know have the potential to produce the oil and natural gas consumers will need.”

     An editorial from Investor’s Business Daily also tackled the issue on June 18. During the exploration period, oil companies “have to weave their way through a labyrinth of environmental rules that Congress has imposed on them, plus defend themselves against bogus legal attacks from green extremists,” it said.

‘We have to change’

     Rather than give an even-handed report on increasing oil supply, many journalists continued to push the “green” theme, calling alternative energies “a surefire way to cut fuel costs” and saying that a fuel other than gasoline would be “a welcome relief,” despite the trillions of dollars and years that may take.

     USA Today called alternatives the “key to the future” on June 13, citing flex fuels, cellulosic ethanol and hybrid vehicles. The article did indicate the higher cost of corn-based ethanol and admitted cellulosic ethanol is “at least several years away,” but didn’t say it might never be “viable.”

     Solar energy also has its flaws according to Severin Borenstein, the same professor CBS included as opposition to offshore drilling. The UC-Berkeley professor said in a February 20 press release that solar photovoltaic (PV) technology is “exciting,” “but the current technology is not economic.”

     “We are throwing money away by installing the current solar PV technology,” said Borenstein. He advocated state and federal governments dedicate more money to research rather than subsidizing “residential” solar panel installation.

     Still, journalists have been enthusiastic about non-oil energy sources.

     “Everybody knows we are an oil economy, but we have to change,” said Tom Foreman, host of CNN’s “This Week in Politics,” on June 22. CNN senior business correspondent Ali Velshi joined the discussion and mentioned Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), who has called for “a new Manhattan Project” for alternative energy.

     Forbes isn’t the only one promoting the idea that alternative energy should take on the urgency of the atomic bomb – others including Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and economist Dr. Stephen Leeb have also used the term “Manhattan Project.”

     NBC “Nightly News” consulted CNBC’s Erin Burnett on June 22. Burnett acknowledged the supply problem saying “a lot of people want oil, and we don’t seem to have enough.” But she never mentioned increasing domestic supply by allowing offshore or ANWR oil exploration.

     Instead, Burnett said, “We have to take our lumps, pay these prices and invest aggressively in alternative fuels that we can have right here in the United States of America. We get 15 percent of our power from right now from nuclear energy. We could dramatically increase that. We have other sources as well that are plentiful here at home like wind, like coal. We need to invest in those.”