ANWR numbers: Who really knows what potential is?

What others say

Posted: Wednesday, January 22, 2003

It wasn't terribly surprising ... to learn that a study of the media's reporting of oil reserves in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge found the estimates to be, as a rule, inflated.

In seeking a simple figure to characterize the potential of the ANWR coastal plain, a somewhat complicated if-this-then-that scenario comes from the U.S. Geological Survey. In stories devoted to the politics surrounding the issue, the actual subject of how much oil exists is relegated to a line or two that ultimately over simplifies or states the full range of possibilities proffered by various analysts.

The resulting reports aren't false, technically, but they aren't completely true either. They can't be, because no one really knows the answer.

According to the study, media reports generally put the ANWR reserves at somewhere between 3 billion and 16 billion barrels, or only used the maximum 16-billion figure. The widely rounded numbers are based on USGS figures and industry estimates.

According to researchers working at the behest of the Environmental Protection Agency at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, the estimate should be stated on the order of zero to 5.6 billion barrels but qualified in relation to economic conditions and technical advances. They used USGS figures only.

The Berkeley report is valuable for journalists who need to keep in mind the role their reports can play in public policy debates. It's a reminder to keep a sharp eye not only on the math, but how numbers and statistics are characterized. And such a report is valuable for consumers of mass media -- who should always be cautioned to read beyond the headlines and apply a dash of personal sense.

On the other hand, limiting reports only to qualified figures released by the USGS would be the method of scientists, not journalists. Journalists try not to quote just one source -- even if it is a scientific source. Limiting the debate to only the numbers offered by the USGS as defined by Berkeley researchers would be to base policy on what amounts to a qualified falsehood (albeit a highly qualified one). The USGS is just taking its best guess, after all.

But public discourse does and should fully involve the human spirit, ingenuity and optimism -- tough items to quantify. Journalists must take into account what figures industry officials say they believe are their maximum potential. Those numbers -- clearly identified as industry estimates -- should be known to the public. And it should come as no surprise that they tend to be higher estimates.

Of course it is true the recoverable oil could stand at zero. Our economy could fall flat on its face and a lot of great ideas could go to ''zero.'' But journalists don't need to spell out every possibility in every story. ''The Oakland Raiders are expected to win the Super Bowl this year. However, readers should consider the possibility they could end the game with zero on the scoreboard. In other news, ANWR may be developed -- and then again it may not.''

The ANWR question was one of four energy topics considered in the Berkeley study, according to a report on the lab's Web site. The work had its origin in a debate over media reports of how much of the nation's electricity is consumed by computers. Jon Koomey, leader of the Berkeley lab's Energy End-Use Forecasting Group is quoted. ''One analyst's widely publicized estimate published in a story in Forbes magazine was repeated over and over by other publications and quickly became accepted by the media and the public, even though the scientific community reviewed this analysis and found it to be inaccurate.'' The original Forbes article claimed 13 percent, but research narrowed the estimate to only 3 percent. It is undoubtedly true that such a practice played some role in the ANWR reporting as well.

However, Koomey also is quoted pointing out that ''economically recoverable resource estimates can either be conditional or fully risked. Conditional estimates are appropriate for thoroughly explored regions with well-understood geology, like the onshore oil fields of the Lower 48 states. They assume a 100 percent probability of finding economically valuable quantities of oil, and simply assess how much of it is there. Fully risked estimates are more appropriate to remote areas like the Arctic Refuge, where much of the detail about underground structures is still unknown.''

This is probably the best point made in the researchers' work. With regard to ANWR news stories, it is indeed important how the numbers are qualified. Readers should know what the USGS estimates are, but they should also understand what industry and other analysts believe the potential may be.

But a truly reliable number or range for ANWR is ''fully risked.'' In other words it is truly unknown. It is a big unknown that likely stands at billions of barrels of oil.


The study further illustrates that opening the plain to further exploration and possible production is the only way to base the nation's policy-making decisions on what can be considered accurate knowledge of ANWR's potential.

-- Fairbanks Daily News-Miner - Jan. 19

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