The Story Behind Last Night

The Story Behind Last Night

Michele Berger
Published: 10/17/2012

Photo: Hofstra University. Reprinted with permission.

Birds made the presidential debate again last night—but this time Big Bird wasn’t center stage. Instead, the birds flew in during a question about gas prices and more broadly, energy policy and drilling.

When asked about gas prices, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney directly answered the question. Obama went into a laundry list of what he considers his administration’s energy-related successes. “Here’s what I’ve done since I’ve been president. We have increased oil production to the highest levels in 16 years. Natural gas production is the highest it’s been in decades. We have seen increases in coal production and coal employment.”

Romney countered, saying Obama has halved the number of permits for drilling on federal lands and water, then mentioned our feathered friends in commentary about the Bakken formation in North Dakota. “The administration brought a criminal action against the people drilling up there for oil, this massive new resource we have. And what was the cost?” Romney asked. “Twenty or 25 birds were killed.”

Here’s what happened in that case: In August 2011, the U.S. District Attorney charged seven oil companies with violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act after U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) officials discovered birds that appeared to have died from mistaking an oil pit for a usable body of water. The birds included mallards, gadwalls, northern pintails, and nine other species.

United States Attorney Timothy Q. Purdon brought the charges against the oil companies, which were then investigated by USFWS. Though the potential punishment for violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act can include prison time and a $15,000 fine, in the end, three of the oil companies entered into plea agreements and the government dropped the charges against the remaining four.