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Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan June 23, 2010

Oil imports, energy and enemies: part of it's right

While much of Florida's attention has been focused on Republican Marco Rubio and former Republican Charlie Crist in the U.S. Senate race, there's also a vigorous contest on the Democratic side.

Congressman Kendrick Meek of Miami has been challenged by Jeff Greene, a billionaire real estate investor from Palm Beach, and the two faced off in a debate in West Palm Beach on June 22, 2010. Being dutiful fact-checkers, we tuned in to see what was said.

One of the topics was the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and what it means for national energy policy.

"This situation never should have happened, it's a big failure of the career politicians like Kendrick Meek who have been sitting in Washington and not creating an energy policy," Greene said.

"You know that we only spend $4 billion, this is what the Congress spends, on research and development for energy when we're sending $350 billion abroad to enemies, I mean, in some countries, so many of whom are enemies. We need to increase research and development."

Greene's a political newcomer, but he slung the facts like an experienced political player. We decided to check Greene's facts on energy R&D and oil imports. We'll take it step by step.

First, Greene said that Congress spends $4 billion on research and development for energy. We checked the last budget for the U.S. Department of Energy, for fiscal year 2010, and found that Greene was relatively close. Congress appropriated $4.9 billion in 2010 for basic science through the Energy Department. The department asked for a little more for next year, at $5.1 billion.

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The economic stimulus, formally known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, sent some money -- about $1.6 billion -- to basic research. But the bulk of the stimulus money went to applied energy projects like weatherizing buildings, cleaning up nuclear sites, and electrical grid improvement.

Next, we wanted to check whether we're spending $350 billion on foreign oil. This was a little trickier. An independent government agency, the Energy Information Administration, publishes regular information on how much oil we import in barrels. The agency also publishes average prices of crude oil. It does not, however, publish a number on annual spending on foreign oil.

T. Boone Pickens, however, takes those numbers and combines them to calculate how much the U.S. spends on foreign oil on a monthly and annual basis. Pickens is an oil tycoon who advocates for energy independence through his website, The Pickens Plan. Keep in mind these numbers are an approximation based on average price, not actual spending. For the last 12 months, from April 2009 to May 2010, the U.S. spent about $314 billion on foreign oil, according to the Pickens numbers. The cost of imported oil has been even more in the past, when the price and consumption were higher.

We were more concerned with Greene's statement that we were sending money to countries that are our "enemies." The U.S. doesn't have an "enemies" list, but we have to note the U.S. does not buy imported oil from Iran or North Korea, two countries with whom we have chilly relations. (In fact, oil imports from Iran are banned by the U.S. government.)

The country we imported the most oil from in 2009 was Canada, followed by Mexico, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Russia, Algeria, Angola, Iraq, Brazil, Colombia, the Virgin Islands, the United Kingdom, Kuwait, Ecuador, the Netherlands, Norway, Equitorial Guinea, and others. (See the complete list.) Which of these countries are our "enemies"?

We asked the Greene campaign for a response. Paul Blank, an adviser to the Greene campaign, said that Greene was speaking of individual Islamic extremists in the Middle East, not governments. The money the U.S. sends to the Middle East to buy oil can make its way into the pockets of terrorists indirectly, Blank said.

We understand the point, but we're not going to delve into terror financing here, because it's not what Greene said. In fact, he said twice during the debate that we're sending money to countries that are our enemies. He said at another point, "We're sending $350 billion a year now to foreign countries to buy oil, many of whom are our enemies. And you know what, that shouldn't be happening."

We're ruling here on Greene's statement that we're spending $4 billion on research and development for energy while spending $350 billion on foreign oil, which goes to some countries that are "our enemies." His numbers are close on how much we spend, but he's off about the countries being enemies. Canada and Mexico are friendly with the U.S. We may not always have the best relations with a few of the other countries on the list -- Venezuela comes to mind -- but we have a hard time seeing how any of them rise to the level of "enemy." So we rate his statement Half True.

Our Sources

The Palm Beach Post, Florida U.S. Senate Democratic primary debate, June 22, 2010 (Green's comments begin at approximately the 27-minute mark)

U.S. Department of Energy, Department of Energy FY 2011 Congressional Budget Request

Energy Information Administration, Spot Prices (Crude Oil in Dollars per Barrel, Products in Cents per Gallon), accessed June 22, 2010

Energy Information Administration, U.S. Imports by Country of Origin, accessed June 22, 2010

The Pickens Plan, U.S. Imported 4.35 Billion Barrels of Oil in 2009, Spending Over Half a Million Dollars per Minute, Jan. 14, 2010

The Pickens Plan, Cost of Foreign Oil Dependency, Already Crippling U.S. Economy, Has Increased $50 Billion Year-Over-Year, June 15, 2010

E-mail interview with Jay Rosser of the Pickens Plan

Phone interview with Paul Blank, adviser to the Jeff Greene campaign

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Oil imports, energy and enemies: part of it's right

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