IER takes a closer look at the “68 million acres” legend


Washington, DC – In the last few weeks the phrase “68 million acres” has become nearly ubiquitous in the national “debate” over energy policy. From its birthplace on the second page of Congressional “report” to the front page of major world newspapers, the “68 million acres” tale is beginning to take its place alongside other famous urban legends.

The tale begins here: “If we extrapolate from today’s production rates on federal land and waters, we can estimate that the 68 million acres of leased but currently inactive federal land and waters could produce an additional 4.8 million barrels of oil and 44.7 billion cubic feet of natural gas each day.”

However, in order to arrive at these numbers, the authors of the report had to “extrapolate” as follows:

  • Roughly 23 million acres of federal land are producing 1.6 million barrels each day today.
  • Roughly 3 times as many federal acres – about 68 million – are leased to oil companies, but are not currently producing oil or gas.
  • Therefore, the United States could be producing 3 times as much oil – or an additional 4.8 million barrels per day – if the lease holders for the non-producing federal lands started producing oil today.

Extrapolating the extrapolation: Using the “report” as a baseline, the Institute for Energy Research (IER) has calculated several ways to achieve American energy independence September 1, 2008:

  • If we use the very same extrapolation, we can estimate that all 2.45 billion acres of the mostly-inactive federal estate (onshore and offshore) could be leased to produce an additional 160 million barrels of oil each day. That’s almost double the amount that is produced on a daily basis in the entire world.
  • If we use the very same extrapolation, we can estimate that the 9.4 billion acres of the currently non-producing moon orbiting our earth could produce an additional 654 million barrels each day. That would supply America’s total annual demand in less than 12 days (but the pipeline construction would be a bear).
  • If we use the very same extrapolation, we can estimate that an extra 182.5 days (12 hours per day x 365 days) of sunlight per year would produce an additional 2,784 megawatt hours of solar electricity each day. That would double our current daily solar energy today, if the government would just outlaw night.
  • If we use the very same extrapolation, we can estimate that if the wind blew a little harder a few extra days per year – in precisely the right places – we could produce an additional 291,384 megawatt hours of wind energy each day. That would quadruple America’s daily wind energy output today.

Getting a handle on Reality: The farcical examples above demonstrate the geological absurdity of the “68 million acres” tale (not to mention its convenient omission of the federal leasing, exploration and production processes, which can take a decade or longer). Obviously, oil and gas aren’t going to be found under every each and every acre of land, just as the sun is not going to shine and the wind is not going to blow during every hour of every day. The moon, however, may have oil and gas – we don’t know because, like 97 percent of the U.S. outer-continental shelf, we haven’t looked.

Conclusion: With elected leaders telling tall tales like this one, it’s not surprising that some Americans are admitting to being “confused” about the causes of high gas prices. Maybe that’s exactly what some politicians want.

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