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FACT CHECK: Bachmann energy claims oversimplified

By Matthew Daly

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 30 2011 7:38 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — America's energy future can't be unlocked as simply as Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann makes it sound when she depicts the nation as the "king daddy dogs" of energy. Even if environmentalists folded and Washington regulators got out of the way, much of the energy is too expensive for companies to develop.

"The radical environmentalists have demanded that we lock up all our energy resources," she told a town hall meeting in Florida. "President Bachmann will take that key out of the door. I will unlock it."

America's energy riches rest primarily on coal, and that resource is already unlocked. Bachmann was correct recently in citing estimates that the U.S. has more potential oil trapped in shale than Saudi Arabia does from all its sources. But those supplies are trapped by the economics of the industry, not overzealous regulators.

A look at her recent claims about energy and how they compare with the facts:

BACHMANN: With untapped oil reserves in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and off the nation's coasts, oil shale in Western states, and rich natural gas and coal deposits, "the United States is the No. 1 country in the world for energy resources," Bachmann said. "We are the king daddy dogs when it comes to energy."

THE FACTS: A March report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service backs up Bachmann's claim about energy resources, with some important qualifications, including the fact that the fossil fuel with the largest U.S. supply by far is coal. Bachmann cited the report in her town hall meeting Saturday in central Florida.

The report, using data compiled by the federal Energy Information Administration, says the United States has the highest total endowment of fossil fuels in the world, taking into account known reserves of oil, natural gas and coal. The U.S. has the equivalent of 973.1 billion barrels of oil in fossil fuel energy. Russia is next, with 954.9 billion barrels of oil equivalent. China is next with 474.8 billion barrels.

But coal accounts for more than 90 percent of the U.S. total. The U.S. share of the world's proven oil reserves is less than 2 percent.

Without counting coal, the United States would fall below at least eight countries, including Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, Venezuela and Qatar.

Bachmann's claim that "radical environmentalists" are keeping the United States from tapping its energy resources is harder to evaluate. While lawsuits and government policies keep some known reserves, including Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, off limits, experts say other factors, such as drilling costs and well productivity, can have a greater effect on production.

BACHMANN: "We have more oil in the form of shale oil in three Western states than all of Saudi Arabia. That doesn't even include ... all the oil in Alaska (or) in the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota."

THE FACTS: That resource — actually called oil shale — is indeed abundant in the West. Oil shale is rock that has a high percentage of organic material that can be turned into oil. The Green River formation in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah contains vast amounts of oil shale — as much as 4 trillion barrels of oil equivalent, the Energy Department says. That is more technically recoverable oil than in Saudi Arabia, as Bachmann says.

However, most of the shale deposits are not thick or rich enough to access or produce economically at current prices, officials say. Shale mining also requires large amounts of water, a problem in the drought-stricken West.

BACHMANN: "We have resources from coal to oil to natural gas," she told The Associated Press. "The problem is, under the EPA, they've been busy locking up (supplies), especially under President Obama."

THE FACTS: The Interior Department is the main federal agency that regulates oil and gas drilling, not the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA does not issue leases for oil and gas production, although it does monitor air and water pollution from drilling activities.

Recently, a plan by Shell Oil Co. to do exploratory oil drilling operations off the Alaska coast was delayed after environmental and Alaskan native groups appealed EPA air permits issued for the project last year. In this case, Obama's EPA initially cleared the way for the project, only to see it temporarily stopped by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, then tied up by an independent appeals board.

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