All of that is true, but critics have parried those points by arguing that the Clinton and Bush administrations deserve credit for the leasing and permitting that created those conditions, and that recent growth in production has occurred on private rather than public land. They are valid points, but the conclusion that critics draw from them—that production has climbed in spite of Obama’s restrictive policies—is debatable. Unfortunately, the data that journalists need to inform that debate is rather opaque.

The EIA keeps a handy database of total crude oil production in the US going back to 1859, but nowhere online does the government publish a single, straightforward set of statistics about how much of that production is occurring on federal lands and waters. Worse still, in 2010, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report to Congress, which stated, “[The Dept. of the] Interior’s measurement regulations and policies do not provide reasonable assurance that oil and gas are accurately measured.”

After the EIA issued its Annual Energy Review report for 2010 in October, Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, sent a letter to the EIA criticizing its accounting methods for oil and gas production of federal and Indian lands. The congressman pointed out that EIA figures were based on sales volumes rather than actual production volumes. As a result, the EIA counted only oil produced from federal lands for which royalties were paid to the federal government, neglecting volumes for which no royalties were paid as well as volumes transferred to the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve. As a result, the EIA updated its numbers and issued a special appendix on March 15, which explained its methods and emphasized that all its data regarding fossil fuel sales came from the Department of the Interior.

Production data for federal lands and waters can be found at the Office of Natural Resources Revenue, whose figures are based on industry-reported sales volumes and royalty payments rather than actual production volumes. Data for different years, as well as royalty-revenue and non-revenue volumes, are all on different pages, though, so it takes a spreadsheet and a little bit of arithmetic to map out long-term trends. The EIA did the math in order to update its Annual Energy Review following Markey’s letter. The data in the report, which go back to 2003, show that there was indeed a large decline in oil production on federal lands and waters in 2011. But that observation belies the fact that federal lands and waters were exceptionally productive during 2010, outstripping any year’s productivity during the Bush administration. Indeed, the average productivity on federal land and waters during the four Bush years, 2003-2008, was 634 million barrels per year. During the three Obama years, 2009-2011, it was 676 million barrels. During the Bush years, federal lands produced roughly 33 percent of the national output on average. During the Obama years, they produced roughly 34 percent:

Critics might still argue that the production during the last few years was dialed in during the Clinton and Bush administrations, so it’s also worth looking at Interior’s leasing and permitting statistics. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) keeps both numbers for onshore activities. For offshore activities, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) keeps leasing stats and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) keeps permitting stats.

BLM’s database is pretty clear-cut, but figuring out what’s been happening offshore requires another spreadsheet and more arithmetic. The data show that between 2001-2008, BLM issued 2,980 new leases and 5,215 drilling permits per year on average, while the Minerals Management Service (the precursor to BOEM and BSEE) leased 960 new tracts of land and issued 866 drilling permits per year on average. By comparison, during the Obama years, BLM issued only 1,856 new leases and 4,274 drilling permits per year on average, while BOEM issued only 465 new leases and BSEE issued only 301 drilling permits per year on average:

The apparent decline in leasing under the current administration may be somewhat illusory given the relatively short period of time that Obama has been in office. As the EIA noted in the Annual Energy Review, “Crude oil production from Federal lands is dominated by offshore production from the Federal Outer Continental Shelf (OCS),” and the recent decline is a result of the timing of several major projects, weather-related damages and disruptions, and the government actions taken in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, where most offshore activity takes place.

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.