Reporters need to play a better numbers game

  For nearly a decade, proposals to drill for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have been at the heart of a political debate that touches on a wide range of potent issues: the moral and military implications of America's dependence on foreign energy supplies, the proper balance between stewardship and exploitation of natural resources, the long-term ramifications of our fossil-fuel appetite.

To those at either extreme of the debate spectrum, ANWR drilling has become a public-policy litmus test as stark and divisive as the conflict over abortion. Opening the refuge's protected coastal plain to energy exploration is either an unmitigated environmental tragedy in the making or it is the nation’s economic and moral obligation to future generations.

You are either for it or against it, viscerally and unswervingly.

Many Americans, however, fall into neither of those camps. They occupy the vast middle ground, where the choice is less emotionally resonant and therefore less obvious. Sensibly, they ask what the trade-off is. How much oil is there, and at what environmental cost would it be extracted?

Most of these undecideds rely for that information on the national news media. This is unfortunate, for as it turns out, reporters have been doing a rather poor job of presenting the central facts underlying the entire ANWR debate. With the issue of Alaskan oil exploration returning to prominence --Senate Republican leaders last month said they're considering attaching an ANWR drilling rider to a crucial federal budget bill -- access to accurate information has never been more important.

Although many considerations eventually come into play, the argument over whether to drill in this Alaskan wildlife refuge has a single fact at its heart: the quantity of oil the currently protected part of the refuge would yield. Opponents of drilling offer one figure, usually quite small, while proponents offer another, usually quite large. Reporters typically cite both extremes, leaving readers with the impression that the truth lies somewhere in between.

While that seems reasonable, it really is not. "This is muddled science at best and, on the whole, a great disservice to policymaking," according to a team of researchers who recently examined reporting about energy issues in the popular news media and have presented their conclusions in the current edition of the peer-reviewed journal, Annual Review of Energy and the Environment.

Reviewing 35 widely circulated news stories printed or aired between December 2000 and September 2001, the researchers identified 40 distinct estimates of the amount of oil likely to be found beneath ANWR’s1.5-million-acre coastal plain.

"The average high estimate was 13 billion barrels," the scientists wrote, "and the average low estimate was 7.6 billion barrels, leaving readers to conclude that a number somewhere in the middle --about 10 billion barrels -- would be roughly right."

Unfortunately, the researchers said, that "implicitly overstated the economically recoverable reserves ... by about a factor of three."

The key term is "economically recoverable." The sheer quantity of oil in a given deposit is irrelevant, as is the amount that could theoretically be tapped using the most sophisticated drilling techniques. What matters is the amount that can be extracted profitably. That figure varies greatly, depending on the costs of pumping, transporting and refining the crude, and the price for which the final product can be sold. Oil that costs more to produce and ship than it will bring on the open market may as well not exist.

A similar caveat applies to any estimate of energy reserves on public land, whether in Wyoming's Red Desert, Montana's Rocky Mountain Front or Colorado's Vermillion Basin.

There is only one credible source of numbers regarding the amount of recoverable oil beneath ANWR: the U.S. Geological Survey, whose petroleum geologists have analyzed the physical formations beneath the refuge, and applied a battery of technical and economic tests to yield statistical estimates of the quantity of oil that could be pumped from it. Just about everyone quoted in news stories is selectively citing figures from that single source.

How much economically recoverable oil is there beneath ANWR? The actual range of North Slope crude oil market prices since 1986 has been $15 to $25 a barrel. If Alaskan crude is bringing a market price of $25 a barrel (in 1996 dollars), there's a 95 percent possibility of recovering 2.3 billion barrels, a 50 percent chance of recovering 5.6 billion barrels, and a 5 percent chance of recovering 9.5 billion barrels, according to the USGS.

If the price is $15 a barrel, there’s a 95 percent chance that the reserve will yield zero barrels of oil and only a 5 percent chance it will yield as much as 2.7 billion barrels.

The true middle point-- 50 percent probability of recovery if the price is $20 a barrel -- is 3.6 billion barrels. Annual U.S. consumption is about 7.2 billion barrels. The debate should start with those numbers.

John Krist is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a senior reporter and columnist for the Star in Ventura, California.