As George W. Bush tries to fend off the political hurt coming his way as the result of high gasoline prices, he likes to say that we wouldn't be in the pickle we're in if Congress had opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling a decade ago.
As Josh Marshall reports, an enterprising reporter had the nerve to ask about a different hypothetical situation Wednesday: What if Iraq were still producing oil at the levels it did before the president started a war there? Neither Al Hubbard, the director of the president's National Economic Council, nor Keith Hennessey, deputy assistant to the president for economic policy, had much of an answer in response. The transcript:
Reporter: The president made the point that had ANWR been approved ten years ago, you'd get about a million barrels a day. Had the Iraq production resumed to the level that had been projected before the war, how much would that contribute today?
Hubbard: I actually don't know the precise answer to that. What's really most important, though, is that we've become less reliable on overseas sources of crude oil and other sources of energy, and more reliant on energy from within our 50 states ...
Reporter: You have no estimate, though, about what Iraqi production could be?
Hubbard: I do not have it.
Hennessey: We can get back to you.
Hubbard: Yes, we can get back to you with that.
Reporter: That would be useful. I mean, just -- obviously, since the president has chosen one interesting example in ANWR, the Iraq one would be an interesting one to compare it to, whether that would be more or less than a billion -- a million a day.
Hubbard: Yes, we will have to get back to you on that.
Perhaps we can help here. Iraq's prewar oil production has been estimated at somewhere between 2.6 million and 3 million barrels per day. In July 2003 -- which is to say, two months after Bush declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq -- the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Iraqi Oil Ministry together set goals of getting production back up to 2.5 million barrels per day by the end of March 2004 and up to 3 million barrels per day by December 2004. But Iraq's oil production averaged just 2 million barrels a day in 2004, USA Today says, and by August 2005, it had dropped to 1.86 million barrels per day. By this February, the Times of London says, production had dropped further, to just 1.5 million barrels a day.
So to answer the question: If you assume that Iraq was producing 2.6 million barrels of oil per day before the war started, then it appears that production has dropped by 1.1 million barrels per day since then. If you assume that Iraq was producing 3 million barrels per day before the war, then it appears production has dropped by 1.5 million barrels per day. In either case, the daily oil production lost to the war exceeds that which the president says would have been gained from drilling in the ANWR.
That's not all that has been lost, of course. The U.S. death toll in Iraq is approaching the 2,400 mark, and a new report from the Congressional Research Service estimates that if Congress approves the supplemental spending bill now before it, a total of $320 billion will have been appropriated for the war. That's only a beginning: The CRS estimates that the Pentagon is burning through money in Iraq at the rate of $6.4 billion a month, and another study suggests that the total cost of the war, including the long-term care that will be required for its veterans, could reach a staggering $2 trillion.
Even at $3.29 a gallon, that would buy a lot of gasoline.