The Duck of Minerva

Blog math: tire-pressure edition

5 August 2008

Wander around the political blogsphere and chances are, at any given moment, you’ll find partisans of all stripes bravely stripping away the deceit of their rivals. Indeed, despite the best efforts of the “MSM” to mislead us all, the bloggers will uncover the facts.

In 2004 they poured over maps of the Mekong Delta to prove Kerry’s falsehoods. They blustered about partisan weighting to prove that Bush was really behind in the polls. They continue their efforts in this cycle. Even as we speak (to take but one example), fearless keyboard detectives will reveal the frightening truth about Obama’s ineligibility to run for President.

Sure, sometimes bloggers get it right. News organizations (and governments) now use Photo-Shopped pictures at their peril. But, more often than not, the amateurs really do reveal themselves as such: they make elementary errors, subject impromptu remarks to laser-beam scrutiny, and so on.

Recent efforts of bloggers at the websites that brought you “How Japanese Internment Won World War II” and “HIV doesn’t cause AIDS” illustrate the pitfalls of google and all-too-quick calculations.

Ed Morrissey explains why Obama’s comment that keeping tires inflated and tuning up cars can save us as much oil as “drilling” is the biggest gaffe since “Poland isn’t under Soviet domination.”

However, Obama clearly stated that we could get just as much oil from tire inflation and tune-ups as we can get from drilling — a ludicrous statement well deserving of ridicule.

Jim Geraghty calculated at the time that, assuming a 10% improvement in gas efficiency, we could save about 330,000 barrels of oil a day through proper tire inflation. Most experts put the actual improvement at 3%. With our present consumption of 20 million barrels a day, that comes to a savings of 1.65% at the most generous assumptions, and more likely about 0.5%. Current production of American oil is 8 million barrels a day; expanding drilling to the OCS and to interior shale would eventually provide millions more per day, not just the 100,000 barrels we’ll get out of our tires.

David Price at Dean Esmay’s Place writes:

How silly is this statement? Doing the math, it looks like he’s off by about an order of magnitude. The DOE link says you can save 3.3% and U.S. consumption is 20.8M barrels a day, half of which is gasoline, so even if fully half the population is driving on very poorly inflated tires you’re talking about only about 165,000 barrels a day, a tenth or less of the millions of barrels a day we could add in production. Hell, the mean estimate for ANWR alone is 780,000 bpd.

So let’s take this slow.

First, let’s give everyone the benefit of the doubt and assume Obama’s reference to “drilling” includes both loosening restrictions on offshore drilling and opening up ANWR (I can’t find a full transcript buried underneath the search results).

Second, let’s note that any oil production from non-drilling sources, such as Shale, is irrelevant to this discussion.

Third, let’s remember that Obama is referring to across-the-board maintenance, not just tire pressure, and use the Federal figures (and not, say ones from a automobile service shop). Now, I have no idea how many cars would benefit, or at what magnitude (these numbers are “up to”), but let’s use Geraghty’s assumption of 1/3 at maximum benefits. So that’s 1/3 of automobiles gaining about 19% efficiency. Let’s use what appears to be a low-end figure of how much of every barrel refined in the US goes to automobile gasoline (45%). We’ll also exclude multipurpose fuels, such as diesel, to make things easier.

So a high-end estimated decrease in consumption (bbl/day) is ((X•.45)•.19)/3.

At 2005 consumption levels, that works out to ((20,800,000•.45)•.19)/3 or 592,800 barrels/day in 2005 (this will be important later).

When I first glanced at Price’s source, I thought something was odd. Figure 2 (p. 9) gives four scenarios for the percentage of imported oil in 2030: (1) 54% with no ANWR, (2) 52% with low-end ANWR production, (3) 51% with mean ANWR production, and (4) 48% with high-end ANWR production. These strike me as marginal gains, but I’m not qualified to make that judgment.

Anyway, it would seem that about a .5% drop in US oil consumption (which one gets at using Obama’s critics’ fugures) translates into something much less than a potential .5% decrease in oil imports? That couldn’t be right.

Then it hit me. Price is comparing the efficiency gains for 2005 oil consumption to ANWR output in 2030.

The report itself assumes a number of breaks on increased US consumption, including continued high oil prices and higher CAFE standards (p. 11): this actually translates into lower US consumption than at present (17 million barrels/day).

Regardless, to put this all in perspective, in 2005-2006 the EIA estimated that total US consumption of oil will increase to a bit over 25 million barrels per day, with an increasing share in the transportation sector. If we use, for the sake of argument, the same formula above that yields a savings of ((25,000,000•.45)•.19)/3, or 712,500 barrels per day, which is a heck of a lot closer to the “mean” estimate from ANWR production in that same year.

True, the high-end estimate here is less than the mean ANWR estimate, let alone the combination of hypothetical offshore drilling and the mean ANWR estimate, but not by an “order of magnitude” or any other number to make Obama’s impromptu statement seem worthy of ridicule.

Moreover, the EIA report doesn’t do a great deal to help the case of the pro-drilling contingent. It notes that OPEC would likely cut production to compensate for ANWR, thus leading to little impact on price.

Assuming that world oil markets continue to work as they do today, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) could neutralize any potential price impact of ANWR oil production by reducing its oil exports by an equal amount (p. 11)

As USNWR summarized the report:

But the U.S. Energy Information Administration, an independent statistical agency within the Department of Energy, concluded that new oil from ANWR would lower the world price of oil by no more than $1.44 per barrel—and possibly have as little effect as 41 cents per barrel—and would have its largest impact nearly 20 years from now if Congress voted to open the refuge today. EIA produced the analysis in response to a request by Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who noted that the last time the agency had taken a look at the economics of ANWR production was in 2000, when oil was $22.04 a barrel.

Higher world oil prices don’t necessarily mean that oil companies could pull more crude out of ANWR, the EIA said. Some advanced methods of extraction may be limited by the features of the Alaska North Slope; for example, steam injection could endanger some of the permafrost, the EIA noted.

The agency pointed out, however, that higher prices would make it more attractive to go after small fields that are near the larger fields that would be the first targets for development, and some advanced, expensive techniques of extraction could become more attractive in the later years if oil prices stay high.

However, EIA predicted these high-tech methods wouldn’t have an impact until after 2030, beyond the horizon of the agency’s forecast of the global energy situation.

So EIA assumed little change—and in fact, a slight decline—in ANWR’s productive capacity since 2000, when it projected that the production in the refuge could reach 650,000 to 1.9 million barrels per day. In the new analysis, EIA says that production could range from 510,000 barrels to 1.45 million barrels per day.

So, let’s review the story so far:

• Opening ANWR would have virtually no impact on prices, for reasons that suggest similarly tiny improvements from expanded offshore drilling.

• Obama’s blogger critics only use consumption gains from inflating tires.

• Obama’s blogger critics compare peak production figures (that are decades away) with efficiency gains based on US oil consumption three years ago.

• If the gains from such measures are low in 2030, that will be because of continued high oil prices and efficiency policies that most Republicans oppose.

• On top of this, let me add that all the critics’ quips about jet fuel neglect the fact that the figures they’re using, as best I can tell, only include gasoline consumption by automobiles.

But it gets better. Price slams the “MSM” for using Bush administration figures from offshore drilling of 200K barrels/day as “a number that seems out of step with published estimates of 250,000 to 1 million bpd.” The link supplied is to a MSM New York Times article, which reads:

Supporters of the Republican position put estimates for potential oil production from new areas at 1 million barrels a day or more. That would be a notable improvement in domestic production, of about 5 million barrels a day. The United States consumes more than 20 million barrels of oil a day, importing most of it.

Democrats call the Republican estimates inflated, and some independent analysts agree. David Kirsch, an oil analyst at PFC Energy, a consulting firm, said that if the most promising areas off Florida and California were opened for drilling, their peak production in a decade could be as little as 250,000 barrels a day — less than a quarter of what the gulf produces now.

“It’s almost a desperate attempt to take advantage of the political climate brought on by high energy prices to steamroll through legislation that won’t fundamentally address those high energy prices,” Mr. Kirsch said.

The truth seems to be that we have no idea what’s out there; the EIA estimates about 18 billion barrels total, but that, apparently, includes California fields unlikely to be tapped and won’t become available for years.

Now, the current “talking point” is that even the “commitment” to open these resources will magically reduce prices. The reasoning appears to be that speculators (who may or may not be driving prices) will bid lower knowing that there will be significant, and secure, petroleum reserves coming on-line in ten or twenty years. Not only does the timeframe make the entire story implausible, but it ignores how little the existence of secure production in the North Sea and Russia, and the high possibility of secure production in Brazil in the future, has done to keep prices in check. And, I should add, this reasoning implies that significant anticipated decreases in US consumption would have a similar impact (as they already may be). If those steps could be taken quickly, that impact would be much faster.

At the end of the day, my best guess is that the efficiency gains I estimate are way too high. By the same token, they’ll make a much larger difference over the next few years–or even decades–than opening up ANWR and the Florida coast to drilling.

But when it comes down to it, I don’t really have much confidence in any of the estimates people like me are throwing around.

That’s really the point of this exercise: neither I, nor David Price, nor Ed Morrissey, nor Jim Geraghty have a clue how to make sense of this controversy. All we did was use our search engine of choice, find links that supported (or, if we didn’t read them too closely, appeared to support) our claims, and then amplify one of the partisan sides of this debate. This kind of stuff isn’t investigative anything, it’s nothing more than back-of-the-envelope calculations by unqualified people.

Let me rephrase: our analysis is basically worthless. Ignore it.

(h/t Scott Lemieux).

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