I never aspired to be an energy writer. It just happened. I started writing a blog on energy about 20 years ago. It began as a simple attempt to correct the record on a steady stream of misinformation about energy issues.
Early on, my blog postings only got a few views a day, so it was more therapeutic for me than it was informative for anyone else. Still, it made me feel better to correct the record — even if nobody was seeing it.
Fast forward 20 years, and that steady stream of misinformation has only increased. People constantly make claims about energy that are easy to disprove. Thus, I have never lacked for writing material.
Today I want to talk about facts, opinions, and misinformation — and how to differentiate between them.
Facts are verifiable pieces of information that can be proven true or false. They are verified through trustworthy sources. Facts should be objective and not open to interpretation or debate. For example, the capital city of France is Paris. That is a fact.
The loaded terms in this definition are “verifiable” and “trustworthy sources.” Some people use highly partisan and otherwise biased sources and deem them “trustworthy.” But for energy facts and statistics, I rely primarily on two sources of information.
The gold standard for U.S. energy statistics is the Energy Information Administration (EIA). The EIA conducts extensive data gathering through surveys of energy companies and other sources to compile statistics on energy reserves, production, demand, imports/exports, costs, and consumption patterns.
Beyond that, the EIA makes short and long-term energy forecasts, but those get out of the realm of fact and into the realm of opinion.
As a government agency, the EIA aims to provide independent analysis free of policy or political influence. This lends credibility to its data for assessing energy issues. The EIA does reside within the Department of Energy (DOE), which is led by a political appointee. However, the EIA itself is staffed by numerous career civil servants with vastly different political views. It would be practically impossible to game the data for political purposes without being detected and reported. More on that later.
My second key source of information is the Statistical Review of World Energy. BP published the Review for 70 years, but this year transferred the publication of the report to the Energy Institute (EI).
Since its inaugural release in April 1952, the Statistical Review has been instrumental in providing comprehensive data on global oil, gas, and coal production and consumption. In recent years, the Review has added global renewable energy production and consumption figures.
Opinions are subjective personal perspectives, interpretations, beliefs, or judgments. Opinions are viewpoints that cannot be proven definitively true or false, but that doesn’t mean all opinions are of equal merit. I am sure you would give a cardiologist’s opinion about a heart condition more weight than you would your plumber’s opinion on the same topic.
But many don’t properly consider the value of expertise when evaluating an opinion. Others may confuse or mistake opinion for fact.
For example, I know people who will state that it is a fact that President Trump’s energy policies were better for the oil industry than President Biden’s policies have been. I also know people who will state the exact opposite. But these are both opinions.
There are facts that can be cited to support either opinion. For example, it is a fact that President Trump passed policies that were favored by the oil industry, and President Biden has passed policies that were opposed by the oil industry. That would be an argument supporting the opinion that President Trump was better for the oil industry.
But it is also a fact that the oil industry has made far more money under President Biden.
For example, from 2017 through 2020 — covering President Trump’s four years in office, ExxonMobil reported total net income of $32.5 billion. In President Biden’s first two years in office, ExxonMobil earned $78.8 billion. In the first six months of this year, ExxonMobil earned another $19.3 billion. So, in 2.5 years under President Biden, ExxonMobil earned more than three times what it earned in 4 years under President Trump.
We can certainly debate the reasons for this. I would argue that presidential policies had little to do with the numbers. But it shows why it is an opinion that one president or another had better policies for the oil and gas industry.
Misinformation is incorrect or misleading information presented as fact. It may be spread intentionally or unintentionally.
For example, President Trump has claimed that when he assumed office, he inherited a “mostly empty” Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), but he further said “I built up our oil reserves during my administration, and low energy prices, to 100% full.”
There’s just nothing about that statement that is true. One of my trusted sources — the EIA — keeps weekly records of the SPR level. You can see those here.
When Trump took office, the SPR levels had never fallen below 500,000 thousand (i.e., 500 million) barrels of crude oil since the 1980s. On the day Trump was inaugurated, the SPR contained 695 million barrels of oil. On the day Trump left office four years later, the SPR contained 638 million barrels.
Thus, not only is President Trump’s claim of filling the SPR false, but the level actually declined while he was in office. Further, the SPR was nearly full when he took office.
I don’t know the reason Trump spread this misinformation, but his statements on this are easily disproved. Some have defended his statements by saying the SPR decline during his term wasn’t his fault. Even if that was 100% true, it doesn’t change the fact that his statements on the SPR are misinformation.
Others will deflect from his statements by pointing out that President Biden has largely depleted the SPR. That is another fact, but it only attempts to change the topic away from the misinformation.
Those Who Can’t Handle the Truth
I once naively believed that correcting misinformation was simply a matter of leading people to objectively verifiable facts. That is often the case, but I have learned that there are many who aren’t interested in facts that contradict their narrative. They may respond with attacks, or they may try to change the subject. But there are plenty of people who won’t acknowledge the misinformation, regardless of the sources you cite.
For example, an acquaintance of mine who was a small-town mayor once claimed to me that when President Obama left office, he was paying $4.00 a gallon for diesel. Then President Trump took over, he claimed, and diesel prices promptly went back to $2.50 a gallon.
I went to my trusted source — the EIA — and showed him that at the end of President Obama’s term, diesel prices in his area were actually about $2.50 a gallon. After a year under President Trump, they had risen to $2.90 a gallon. You can see that data here at the EIA. We can argue about why that happened, but we can’t argue whether it did happen. Yet, that is what he chose to do.
He first insisted that he knew what he was paying for diesel at the end of Obama’s second term, and thus the EIA data couldn’t be accurate. He asserted that it was more likely that an entire agency had faked the price of diesel for political purposes rather than believe his memory was inaccurate.
Then he began to attack me personally, questioning my motives. I explained that my motives were providing accurate information, and that I was happy to call the station where he said he paid $4 a gallon for diesel and confirm his story. He wanted to know if I was calling him a liar. I explained that I didn’t know his motivations, but I did know that diesel wasn’t $4 a gallon at the end of Obama’s second term.
The lesson from this exchange is that some people are not going to adjust their misinformation in the face of facts. They will instead dispute the nature of a fact in favor of their recollection or opinion. The best thing you can do in those situations is clearly lay out the information for others who may be watching the exchange, and just hope the information sticks with some of them.
This only slows the spread of misinformation though. But the next time this guy tells this story, at least some onlookers may be aware that it isn’t true.
We live in an era where pundits will confidently state opinions or even push misinformation as facts. It is important to understand the main differences between the three:
- Facts are objective truths that can be verified.
- Opinions are subjective views open to individual interpretation.
- Misinformation is false information spread as if it were true.
Recognizing the difference between facts, opinions, and misinformation is important for having informed discussions, making logical arguments, and promoting truthful information. Facts should be supported by evidence, and expertise and motivations should be considered when opinions are offered.
I have observed that energy misinformation often leads to poor energy policy decisions. Thus, misinformation should be identified and corrected with factual information so optimal policy decisions can be considered.