API: White House misleads the public about oil production

Offshore drilling advocates in Congress and industry are accusing the Obama administration of misleading lawmakers and the public by insisting that oil production has reached new highs, despite delays in permitting Gulf exploration work.

Both sides are waging a statistical war over domestic oil development, in light of rising oil and gasoline prices stoked by unrest in Libya and the Middle East.

Obama administration officials have been pointing to a jump in domestic oil production and federal lands leased for development to beat back claims that it has slowed offshore work in the wake of last year’s Gulf oil spill.

But the administration is unfairly taking credit for long-term decisions that were made long before President Barack Obama took office, said Erik Milito, upstream director for the American Petroleum Institute.

“It’s completely disingenuous to say that offshore production has increased due to anything this administration has done,” Milito said. An increase in public land leased for oil and gas development is “attributable to these decisions to lease almost a decade ago.”

Milito also took aim at Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s claim before the House Natural Resources Committee that there were 126 drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico last month, compared to 120 in February 2010 and 116 in 2009.

Rig counts may have gone up, Milito said, but that doesn’t mean they’re working.

According to rig counts provided by Baker Hughes, there were 55 rotary rigs drilling offshore in the Gulf of Mexico four days before the Deepwater Horizon explosion last April. Last week, that number of working rotary rigs in the Gulf had dropped to 25.

Oil industry leaders have consistently accused the administration of throwing up roadblocks to new production, even before the Gulf of Mexico spill. Milito said there has been “decision after decision that shows they are not trying to promote oil and gas as part of the U.S. energy (portfolio and policy) going forward.”

Last week, Salazar told the natural resources panel that the government has expanded the amount of public lands and federal waters available for oil and gas production, even as U.S. imports of foreign oil have decreased. Analysts have attributed the drop in imported oil to a decrease in U.S. oil demand because of the economic recession.

A White House blog post earlier this week highlights the jump in oil production from the outer continental shelf over the last two years, from 446 million barrels in 2008 to 600 million barrels of estimated production in 2010.

Staff for Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee sent a “fact check” style e-mail to reporters accusing the administration of “attempting to take credit for actions they had nothing to do with.” Instead, the Republican staff said, “the strong production in the Gulf was due to leases issued in 1996-2000 under the Deepwater Royalty Relief Act — long before Obama took office.”

They noted that the government’s Energy Information Administration projects a slight decline — of about 150 million barrels — from the Gulf of Mexico in 2012, in part because of last year’s five-month ban on some deep-water exploration.

The squabbling over statistics shows no sign of abating. The administration has prepared a fact sheet on oil and gas development laden with stats touting increases in domestic production and flagging the amount of onshore and offshore leases that aren’t producing. For instance, though 41 million acres of public lands now are leased for oil and gas development, just 12 million acres are producing.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, today said Republicans were unfairly blaming the Obama administration for rising gasoline prices tied to Middle East strife.

“When it comes to high oil prices, this is about OPEC — not Obama,” Markey said. “I find it shocking that Republicans would first attack the President of the United States before pointing a finger at Colonel Gadhafi.”