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By W. Gardner Selby November 28, 2010

Rep. Joe Barton says 80 percent of oil we're discovering is in deep waters of Gulf of Mexico

U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who champions oil and gas producers, railed against President Barack Obama's May decision to impose a moratorium on drilling offshore during an Aug. 19 forum in Dallas.

To buttress his critique, Barton lofted a factoid that stuck with us. According to a news blog posted that day by the Dallas Morning News, Barton called the moratorium "stupid" and said that 80 percent "of the oil we're discovering, we're discovering in the deep Gulf. When you put a six-month moratorium in place that could last indefinitely, you're not exploring for the very resource we need in America."

Pack my trunk, ma, I'm headin' to sea. Eighty percent?

First, some catching up: The Obama administration in October lifted the moratorium, which had idled 33 rigs in the Gulf, according to an Oct. 12 news article in The Washington Post, accounting for more than 25 percent of U.S. oil production.

We asked Barton's office how he came to his 80 percent figure and then started looking for independent indications of how much of the nation's oil discoveries come from the so-called deep waters.

From an online search, we found an article posted in 2004 by the Minerals Management Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior stating that energy companies have focused on oil and gas resources in water depths of 1,000 feet and beyond. "Their progress in developing these resources has made the Gulf of Mexico the focal point of deep water oil and gas exploration and production in the world," the article says. The service estimates that the deep water regions of the Gulf "may contain 56 billion barrels of oil equivalent, or enough to meet U.S. demand for 7 1/2 years at current rates."

Since 2001, the article says, energy companies have announced 11 discoveries in water depths greater than 7,000 feet. About 30 percent of the oil and 23 percent of the gas produced in the United States comes from the federal Outer Continental Shelf, with most of that production from the Gulf, the story says. In 1990, about 4 percent of the oil and less than 1 percent of the natural gas produced in the Gulf originated in deep water areas, but by 2003 more than 60 percent of oil and 29 percent of the natural gas was produced from deep water areas, the story says.

Separately, the U.S. Energy Information Administration says online that as of 2008, 19 percent of U.S. proved crude oil reserves were believed to be in the Gulf of Mexico.

We ran that by Barton's office and heard from Lisa Miller, a staff member for Republicans on the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee. Miller said by e-mail that judging Barton's statement by the EIA oil-reserve estimate would misconstrue "both the context and the facts. EIA’s number references the amount of U.S. 'proved reserves' in the deep Gulf while Mr. Barton plainly was discussing production, not reserves."

Miller pointed us to a chart on a web page created by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (formerly the Minerals Management Service) indicating that in 2009, 80 percent of the oil produced in the Gulf of Mexico was produced from deep-water sources.

We pressed Miller on whether oil production is the same as oil being discovered. She replied by e-mail: "It's semantics."

Not really, advised W. John Lee, a veteran professor in the Texas A&M University Department of Petroleum Engineering. Lee, who has expertise in estimating oil and gas reserves, told us that oil production and discovery "are not the same thing." Essentially, he said, discovery of oil reserves happens years before production takes place: "Production means developed and flowing. That comes many years after discovery."

Eric Potter, associate director of the University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology, agreed with Lee. Saying that 80 percent of discoveries are happening in the deep-water Gulf blurs the distinction between discovery and production, he said, casting the two as the same when they are not. Yet Potter also said that although he couldn't find an authoritative source showing where oil discoveries have lately been concentrated, he has no doubt most new finds are in the deep-water Gulf.

Finally, we spoke with Steve Grape, domestic reserves project manager for the Energy Information Administration. Grape speculated that close to 100 percent of oil discoveries in the Gulf are occurring in deep or ultra-deep (meaning 5,000 feet or deeper) waters. Oil companies are probing those waters, Grape said, "in search of larger targets. They're located in deep water; no one has gone there before." He noted the administration has estimated that as of 2008, 81 percent of proved crude oil reserves in the Gulf were in its deep waters.

To recap: Although experts we contacted agree that most oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico takes place in deeper waters, we found no proof -- if such data exists -- of Barton's statement that "80 percent of the oil we're discovering, we're discovering in the deep Gulf."

Oil production is a different matter, as the experts told us. If Barton had talked about that instead, and clearly limited his geographical scope to the Gulf, he would have fared better on the Truth-O-Meter. But those are big ifs.

We rate his statement Barely True.

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Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.

Our Sources

Dallas Morning News, online blog, "Barton calls drilling moratorium stupid," Aug. 19, 2010 (accessed Aug. 20, 2010)

E-mails (excerpted), Lisa Miller, Republican communications director, U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, Nov. 19 and 22, 2010

Interview, Steve Grape, petroleum engineer and domestic reserves project manager, Energy Information Administration, Dallas, Nov. 23, 2010

Interview, W. John Lee, Regents professor and L.F. Peterson endowed chair, Harold Vance Department of Petroleum Engineering, Texas A&M University, College Station, Nov. 23, 2010

U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, website, "Deepwater Production Summary by Year," undated (accessed Nov. 22, 2010)

U.S. Energy Information Administration, web posts, "Gulf of Mexico Fact Sheet," last updated Oct. 25, 2010 and "Crude Oil Proved Reserves, Reserves Changes, and Production, 2008," (accessed Nov. 17 and 18, 2010)

U.S. Department of the Interior, website, "History of Interior" (accessed Nov. 18, 2010)

U.S. Department of the Interior, publication, "Deep Water, Where the Energy Is," Nov. 15, 2004

The Washington Post, news article, "White House lifts ban on deepwater drilling," Oct. 12, 2010 (accessed Nov. 22, 2010)

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More by W. Gardner Selby

Rep. Joe Barton says 80 percent of oil we're discovering is in deep waters of Gulf of Mexico

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