The President's announcement today about opening up previously off-limits areas of the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling also opens up a lot of opportunity for silliness in the news media. It's Reserves Time, baby!

An article by Juliet Eilperin on the Wash Post site starts the festivities:

"The Interior Department's Minerals Management Service estimates that the Gulf of Mexico contains 36 billion to 41.5 billion barrels of undiscovered, economically recoverable oil ..."

That's a number thrown around for the entire Gulf, most of which is already open to drilling. The government's estimate for recoverable reserves in the newly opened portion of eastern Gulf of Mexico is 3 -4 billion barrels. This is thought to be the richest of the parcels that could be leased in 2012 and developed around 2020.

Ah jeez, reserves. Remember, reserves numbers are usually used by hucksters to obscure issues and confuse an audience. Reserves numbers are all but irrelevent. What kind of increase in actual flow rate can we expect from opening up these new areas to drilling? The EIA estimated in 2007 that opening up the entirety of the off-limits areas of the lower 48 could raise production by around 200,000 barrels per day in 2030; they did not expect the increase to have a significant impact on prices. By 2009 they had updated their projection with as much optimism as they could muster: opening up the entire lower 48 could lower the price of gas by 3¢ per gallon, but not until 2030 or so.

So that's how those impressive-sounding reserves actually play out in real life (at best). How does that time-frame work for you? How 'bout those three cents per gallon? What are you going to do with yours? I'm going to freaking Cinn-a-bon.

One of the common absurdities you'll find in articles about this is an extrapolation of how long those precious reserves would last "at current rates of consumption." Take this article by John Broder for example. Broder ends his little article noting estimates that there might be "as much as a three-year supply of recoverable oil ... at current rates of consumption." Let's see here. Current rate of consumption -- about 19 million barrels per day. The fact is that all this hypothetical new drilling could not supply the country's needs for a single day, let alone three years, "at current rates of consumption." In fact all of North America including Canada and Mexico and the North Slope of Alaska can not supply Americans with enough oil for a single day or a single hour "at current rates of consumption." It's good times when people start comparing their reserves estimates to "current rates of consumption." Good times.

Obama will use this as political capital to get other things through and so he can say look, I'm making the "tough choices" necessary to wean America off foreign oil. He certainly is not. Not yet.