From the Fact Check Desk: Are Obama’s Claims About Inflating Car Tires Accurate?

By Natalie Gewargis

Jul 31, 2008 5:01pm

Yesterday in Missouri, the presumptive Democratic nominee had a suggestion for voters: Pump up your tires.

To improve your mileage.

To thus save energy.

"There are things that you can do individually though to save energy," Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, said. "Making sure your tires are properly inflated, simple thing, but we could save all the oil that they’re talking about getting off drilling, if everybody was just inflating their tires and getting regular tune-ups. You could actually save just as much."

Watch HERE.

Republicans lit into Obama today.

"This is unbelievable!" said Rush Limbaugh today. "My friends, this is laughable of course, but it’s stupid!  It is stupid! How many of you remember the seventies? When we had these shortages, all through the Jimmy Carter years and we have all these tips, all these tips on how to save gasoline?  Avoid jackrabbit starts, keep your tires properly inflated, there’s a list of about ten or twelve these things.  I said if I follow each one of these things I’ll have to stop the car every five miles, siphon some fuel out, for all the fuel I’m going to be saving. This is ridiculous.  This is a presidential candidate and he’s talking about keeping your tires inflated and getting regular tune-ups and that would save as much oil as drilling would produce. And this guy is the Democrat presidential nominee.  Who has filled his head with this stuff"

Listen HERE.

In Racine, Wisc, today, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was more respectful of the idea, but he belittled it as a solution in and of itself.

"Yesterday, he suggested we put air in our tires to save on gas," McCain said. "My friends, let’s do that, but do you think that’s enough to break our dependence on Middle Eastern oil? I don’t think so. So I believe that every energy source needs to be part of the solution. We need to develop new alternative energies like wind, solar, tide, biofuels, but we also need to develop more existing energies like nuclear power and clean coal."

Watch HERE.

The idea that inflating tires would help is not disputable, Limbaugh’s mockery aside.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, "every pound per square inch of tire underinflation wastes 4 million gallons of gas daily in the U.S."  Survey information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that 27% of the cars on the road have a significantly under-inflated tire.

Obviously, Obama wasn’t arguing that inflating tires would reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil — but he was saying such a move would save as much energy as drilling for oil in the continental shelf would provide.

Is that true?

If it does save gas, and it is a common problem, well, then what would the total savings be if we all were a bit more diligent about checking the pressure very morning?

Frank Verrastro, Director and Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), says that it’s complicated, of course.

"The ‘x’ factors here are the fact that Sen. Obama used both tire inflation and tune ups in his remarks, and no one knows what volume you could/would get from additional drilling in the outer continental shelf," Verrastro says.

As of now, all we have for the OCS are resource estimates, but no production.

Using the website FuelEconomy.gov, Verrastro writes, we can estimate that "the maximum (estimated) fuel economy (i.e., mileage) savings drivers could expect as a result of keeping their engines properly tuned (4%), replacing air filters (up to 10%), properly inflating tires (up to 3%) and using the correct motor oil (1-2%) is 18-19%.  Since American drivers use roughly 380 million gallons of gasoline (not including diesel) per day, an 18% improvement translates into a savings of 68 million gallons, or 1.62 million barrels of oil per day."

Current crude oil and condensate production in the OCS is about 1.25 million barrels per day.

So… What does that mean?

It means that if every American was running around with significantly underinflated tires and improperly tuned cars, then, yes, Sen. Obama is right, the savings from inflating the tires and tuning the cars could arguably match or exceed current output from the OCS.

However, since estimates of significant tire underinflation affect only about a quarter of the cars on road — as we noted above with the NHTSA statistics — and it’s highly unlikely that 100% of the cars are in need of tune- ups at any given time, the maximum savings amount is probably closer to 10%, Verrastro says.

"So the production offset is more likely to approach 800 thousand barrels per day – a tidy sum and a worthwhile target for savings, but not equal to OCS output," he rules. "Finally, without knowing what production volumes could be expected from lifting the ban on OCS drilling moratoria, it’s impossible to assert that taking these fuel savings actions would exceed future offshore oil volumes, and in fact, one might argue that the combination of achieving these savings AND developing new supply would doubly enhance US energy security."

- Jake Tapper and Natalie Gewargis

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