Obama's DNC Energy Claims: A Fact Check

Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on stage as he accepts the nomination for president at the Democratic National Convention | Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

After 30 years of inaction, we raised fuel standards so that by the middle of the next decade, cars and trucks will go twice as far on a gallon of gas. We have doubled our use of renewable energy, and thousands of Americans have jobs today, building wind turbines and long-lasting batteries. In the last year alone, we cut oil imports by one million barrels a day, more than any administration in recent history. And today the United States of America is less dependent on foreign oil than at any time in the last two decades.

So said Barack Obama last night during his speech at the Democratic National Convention, accepting his party's nomination for a second term as President. The words were ringing and inspiring. But were they accurate?

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After 30 years of inaction, we raised fuel standards so that by the middle of the next decade, cars and trucks will go twice as far on a gallon of gas.

This is a reference to the administration's long-overdue increase in Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. On paper, the President's claim here is basically correct: the CAFE standard was set at 27.5 miles per gallon when he took office, and it was just bumped up to 54 mpg -- that's twice as far on a gallon of gas, if you round off your figures.

But it's only true on paper. The CAFE standard is a slippery and somewhat misleading measurement. As Popular Mechanics pointed out in 2011, the policy has long held a loophole that favored the increasing production of larger, less-fuel-efficient vehicles. Manufacturers get credits toward their CAFE standard for alternative fuel vehicles, meaning that the gasoline-powered vehicles they sell don't have to be twice as efficient. As the Center for Biological Diversity's Vera Pardee told Bloomberg last month in the wake of announcements that the administration had upped the standard, "[t]he standard should be stronger. When you subtract the flexibility and credits already given, the standard is really closer to 47 mpg."

We have doubled our use of renewable energy...

Well, no. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), we've more than doubled our capacity to create certain kinds of renewable energy, but our actual use of renewable energy has nowhere near doubled.

In 2009, according to the EIA, our gross production of energy from all renewable sources -- Conventional and small hydroelectric, solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal -- was 419.59 terawatt-hours. Last year, that went up to 507.24 terawatt-hours. So far in 2012, we've produced 485.95 terawatt-hours of renewable energy, which is respectable -- but not by any means a doubling since Obama took office.

That said, the two renewable sectors in which there has been significant growth in the last few years -- photovoltaic solar and wind generating capacity -- have doubled or more in the last few years. At the end of 2008, according to the American Wind Energy Association, the U.S. had 25,410 megawatts of installed wind generation capacity. By the end of 2011, that had reached 46,919 megawatts, and that had jumped to 49,802 MW by July of this year. In 2008, according to EIA, our grid-connected solar capacity stood at 1,587 megawatts; in 2011, it had reached 4,522 megawatts -- significantly more than doubling.

And if you exclude conventional hydroelectric generation from your figuring, President Obama's claim more or less holds up. The EIA's figures for energy production coming from "other renewables" -- biomass, geothermal, solar thermal, photovoltaic energy, and wind -- went from 105,238 terawatt-hours in 2007 to 194,993 in 2011. It's likely to rise even more significantly by the end of 2012.

So as it stands, the President's statement that "we've doubled our use of renewable energy" is a bit inaccurate, but based on the assumption that his speechwriters just wanted to simplify some of the actual valid data, we'll give it a pass just this once.

and thousands of Americans have jobs today, building wind turbines and long-lasting batteries.

We don't know about jobs specifically building wind turbines, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics cites 2009 AWEA figures claiming "85,000 Americans... currently employed in the wind power industry and related fields." Even if the high-tech battery industry employs only a dozen people nationwide -- and they employ more than that -- the President's statement checks out.

In the last year alone, we cut oil imports by one million barrels a day, more than any administration in recent history.

This is technically correct in an extremely narrow sense, depending on how you define "the last year." We took the EIA's figures for oil imports over the last year and crunched the numbers to show average daily oil imports in each month, expressed in millions of barrels:

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2011 12.2 10.7 11.8 11.8 11.8 11.8 11.7 11.2 11.2 11.0 11.2 11.0
2012 10.9 10.8 10.6 10.6 11.5 11.3            

The EIA's figures are only updated as far as June. It's entirely possible that the President of the United States has access to figures that have not yet been shared with the web-visiting public, However, based on this EIA data, it looks as though Obama's statement may be a bit of cherry-picking. The U.S. has definitely reduced its oil imports steadily since 2006, the first such decline since the Reagan administration. This may be due as much to the economic slowdown as anything else. If you choose your month carefully -- March or April 2012, say -- you can truthfully say that oil imports were down by a million barrels a day over the same month in 2011. But in June that drop is only half a million barrels per day, and in May it was even less. Overall, the claim is misleading.

And today the United States of America is less dependent on foreign oil than at any time in the last two decades.

Wrong. We are lessening our dependence on oil imports, to be sure. The EIA says:

U.S. dependence on imported oil has declined since peaking in 2005. This trend is the result of a variety of factors including a decline in consumption and shifts in supply patterns. The economic downturn after the financial crisis of 2008, improvements in efficiency, changes in consumer behavior and patterns of economic growth, all contributed to the decline in petroleum consumption. At the same time, increased use of domestic biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel), and strong gains in domestic production of crude oil and natural gas plant liquids expanded domestic supplies and reduced the need for imports.

But 2005 is not two decades ago. To be less dependent on oil imports than we were in 1992, we'd have to cut imports a whole lot more than we have. In February 1992 the U.S imported 198 million barrels of oil. The figure for February of this year? 303.5 million barrels.

In 1991, the U.S. imported just under 2.8 billion barrels of oil. In 2011, that figure was almost 4.2 billion barrels. Conclusion: the President's statement is false.

And of course, renewable energy and environmental advocates will find much to object to in a subsequent part of Obama's speech, where he said:

We're offering a better path where we... a future where we keep investing in wind and solar and clean coal, where farmers and scientists harness new biofuels to power our cars and trucks, where construction workers build homes and factories that waste less energy, where... where we develop a hundred-year supply of natural gas that's right beneath our feet. If you choose this path, we can cut our oil imports in half by 2020 and support more than 600,000 new jobs in natural gas alone.

Wind and solar and biofuels are all well and good, but "clean coal" is at best reliant on utterly speculative and untested technologies and at worst a simpler industry PR tactic. And those 600,000 new jobs in natural gas may very well come to pass, but the President carefully avoided using the word "fracking" to describe the technology that will make those jobs possible.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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Thanks for the fact check Chris, its great to cut through the spin. I have two comments. First, if we've doubled + our CAPACITY for renewables, but not USE, is that because overall energy use has gone up alot? In other words, what percent of renewable USE do we have now compared to a decade ago?

You note the glaring contradiction of "clean coal", it's worth pointing out that while natural gas burns cleaner, the production cycle is up to 30% dirtier than coal. The increased emissions combined with the risks to air, water, public health and the environment from fracking also make ng a dangerous choice.