Department of Dubious Statistics, Oil Imports Edition

The $700 billion the US pays each year to nasty oil-exporting countries — the $700 billion that both Barack Obama and John McCain have cited in their paeans to energy independence — doesn’t exist:

According to government agencies that track energy imports, the U.S. spent $246 billion in 2007 for all imported crude oil; a majority came from friendly nations, including neighboring Canada and Mexico. An additional $82 billion was spent on imported refined petroleum products such as gasoline, diesel and fuel oil. A majority of the refined products came from refineries in such friendly countries as the Netherlands, Canada, the United Kingdom, Trinidad and Tobago and the Virgin Islands.

The great thing about this number is that it’s new enough that its source can be tracked down and made public: Boone Pickens. Boone, characteristically, is unapologetic about the exaggeration.

So here’s the question: now that Josef Hebert has revealed the $700 billion number to be bunk, will the presidential campaigns, and pundits in general, stop using it? The problem of course is that sensible news articles just don’t have the same reach that big scary numbers do. So I suspect that the $700 billion meme will live on for years, with the likes of Jim Surowiecki and myself occasionally and futilely pointing out that it’s utter crap.

On the other hand, at least the Obama campaign claims to be looking into the number. So maybe he’ll stop using it, even if nobody else does.

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