A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Straining a Point

An Obama ad says he'll "fast track alternatives" to imported oil. Actually, his plan is a 10-year proposal with no guarantees.


Summary

Obama released a national ad saying he would "fast-track alternatives" to imported oil. On closer examination, his proposal is to spend $150 billion over the coming decade on energy research. Ten years doesn't sound all that "fast" to us, and there's no guarantee that the research will result in less oil being imported.

Analysis

Sen. Barack Obama's campaign released the ad and said it would run on national cable TV networks starting July 17. According to the news release, the 30-second spot "underscores Barack Obama’s understanding of national security in a new century." Perhaps so. Much of what it says is accurate enough, but on one point we find that it strains the truth and could easily give viewers a false impression.

[TET ]

Obama '08 Ad: "Changing World"

Announcer: 40 years ago it was missile silos and the Cold War. Today, it’s cyber attacks…loose nukes…oil money funding terrorism. Barack Obama understands our changing world.

On the Foreign Relations Committee, he co-sponsored a law to lock down loose nuclear weapons.

As president, he’ll rebuild our alliances to take out terrorist networks… And fast-track alternatives so we stop spending billions on oil from hostile nations.

New leadership for a changing world.

Obama: I’m Barack Obama and I approve this message.[/TET]

Fast Track

As an example of Obama's supposed grasp of 21st-century security threats, the ad says he will "fast-track alternatives so we stop spending billions on oil from hostile nations." Pictured on screen are images of whirling windmills generating electricity, a solar array against a blue sky, and a couple of white-coated lab workers, one of them peering into a microscope.

The campaign says the ad is referring to Obama's long-standing proposal to spend $150 billion over 10 years for research into alternative energy – "to advance the next generation of biofuels and fuel infrastructure, accelerate the commercialization of plug-in hybrids, promote development of commercial-scale renewable energy, invest in low-emissions coal plants, and begin the transition to a new digital electricity grid."

Spending that money may well be a good idea, but it's not our place to judge. We do object to implying that a decade-long program, which in all probability could not even begin until sometime in late 2009, is a "fast track" to anything.

We also point out that even over the long term there can be no guarantee that just spending more for research will produce the sort of new fuels, vehicles or other breakthroughs that would actually reverse the growth of oil imports. Keep in mind that the U.S. imported the equivalent of 13.4 million barrels of oil per day last year, up nearly 17 percent from just five years earlier and 32 percent higher than in 1997. This is a huge problem that has been getting worse for a long time. Reversing it will not be "fast" or painless.

We repeat: We're not knocking Obama's 10-year plan. We cited it in our July 9 article as the reason that a Republican National Committee ad was wrong to say that Obama has "no new solutions" to the energy problem. We're not endorsing Obama's plan either. We are saying Obama’s ad gives the false impression that his decade-long program is a "fast track" that would allow the U.S. to "stop spending billions on oil from hostile nations."

–by Brooks Jackson

Update, July 17: This article originally described the ad as saying that Obama "has fast-track alternatives" to imported oil. After this article was posted, some readers contacted us to say that "fast-track" should be read as a verb, giving the ad the sense that Obama's $150 billion proposal would merely speed up research and put alternatives on a fast track.

We agree the phrase was probably meant to be a continuation of the previous sentence: "As president, he'll rebuild our alliances … and fast-track alternatives …" We have rephrased our story throughout to reflect that. But whether intended as a verb or a modifier, we judge the term "fast-track" to be misleading, creating with words, and the accompanying pictures, the impression that Obama could quickly replace imported oil with wind and solar power and yet-to-be-developed fuels.

Sources

Obama08. "OBAMA FOR AMERICA, “CHANGING WORLD,” :30 FOR TV" campaign fact sheet 17 July 2008.

U.S. Energy Information Administration, "U.S. Crude Oil and Petroleum Products Imports from All Countries (Thousand Barrels per Day)" Web site accessed 17 July 2008.