Sounds suspicious, Senator


I was disappointed with your article regarding Sen. Tom Coburn (HCN, 11/8/10). You allowed the subject to spew a series of incorrect, or irrelevant "statistics" and "facts."

  1. Sen. Coburn claims that the U.S. Constitution is mostly about what the federal government cannot do. I am no constitutional scholar, but I suspect most lawyers would point out that Articles I through III enumerate the powers and roles of the three branches of government, and comprise the great majority of the document. I see a lot of space devoted to what Congress, the president and the Supreme Court can do.
  2. Sen. Coburn claims we have "7,000" trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas reserves, excluding Alaska and offshore resources in the U.S., good for "over 100 years of supply." On this, I am an expert, and both statements are incorrect. We have approximately 500 trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas reserves, including Alaska and offshore; about 65 years’ worth of U.S. supply.
  3. Sen. Coburn implies that the U.S. allows oil and gas exploration on only 8 percent of federal lands. This figure is likely meaningless. Vast areas of federal land offer no chance for oil or gas, due to fundamental geology. Some areas are restricted for very good reasons. We would never allow drilling in the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, even if there were prospects there.

In the future, please do some research, and correct these kinds of errors, rather than let people trot out falsehoods.

Jim Evans
Dept. of Geology, Utah State University
Logan, Utah

HCN responds
We agree with your general point: Sen. Coburn pushes wholly inaccurate or biased information. In that sense, he isn’t all that different from many other politicians. The sidebar went into some detail about the questionable stands of Coburn and Oklahoma’s other senator, Jim Inhofe — in effect critiquing both. In the cover story, we intended to describe the context for their rise to power, putting our readers in the room with the unedited Coburn. As you demonstrate with your letter, our readers tend to be well-informed; we figured that they would see through Coburn’s exaggerations and spin.

Ray Ring,
HCN senior editor

Senator Coburn
Brandon White
Brandon White
Nov 22, 2010 10:11 AM
1. Actually, most of the Constitution describes what the Federal Government shall be, not what it can do. Of course Senator Coburn would done better to say "The Bill of Rights" not the Constitution. Many of the 10 amendments contain the phrase "Congress shall make no law" and certainly are about what the Federal Government cannot do. The 10th Amendment says "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Can't we all agree that this is about limiting what the Federal Government can do?
2. Professor Evans could have helped us all by explaining how the concept of "reserves" is more complicated than just a simple figure. If the Senator conflates the concepts of proven, probable, and potential reserves, wouldn't it be great if a geologist made a useful contribution rather than a snarky jibe? Does Dr. Evans claim that Dr. Coburn is wrong to say that there is an immense amount of natural gas that can be recovered in the future? Or is real discussion too much to expect from a blog?