Recalling its paper-form origins, EIA eyes better data
Washington (Platts)--26Feb2013/552 pm EST/2252 GMT
Data is the lifeblood of the Energy Information Administration, the US
government agency that collects, analyzes and disseminates commodity-related
statistics and other indicators that are widely used by stakeholders in the
oil and natural gas, electricity, coal and other energy markets.
And now, Adam Sieminski, a well-known and highly respected energy economist
who took EIA's reins about eight months ago, is trying to modernize how the
agency harvests, analyses and distributes its vital market-related data.
Sieminski and his colleagues have even come up with a catchy moniker for the
effort: the "Transformation."
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When President Barack Obama tapped him to run EIA last year, Sieminski said
he wanted to make the agency's data "punchier" and more relevant to the
energy markets. In a recent interview with Platts to assess the progress he
has made on that front, Sieminski said a key part of the effort is
standardizing the collection of production and price data from across the
Sieminski also marveled at how radically EIA's data-collection practices have
changed since the 1970s, when Congress first created the agency in response
to the energy crises of that era.
"When EIA was first started, there was no Internet; we were sending paper
forms to people to fill in," he said. "And then the paper forms would come
back and we would have people, clerks, to type that into mainframe computers."
EIA did seek to modernize its operations though the 1980s and 1990s by using
off-the-shelf software programs such as Microsoft Excel. But these days,
Sieminski said EIA is testing out dedicated statistical software that makes
it much easier to collect energy-related data and ensure that it is correct.
EIA is also working to standardize its data collection and analysis
operations across the electricity, oil, gas and other sectors, Sieminski said.
"Some things as simple as, what does a yellow background mean?" he said. "It
meant one thing in one survey, and it meant something else in another survey.
We are now trying to just standardize all of these surveys, so that when
somebody gets sick or somebody leaves, it is just really easy to hand that
down to the next person to get that done."
Daniel Yergin, a well-known energy consultant who won the Pulitzer Prize for
a book he wrote on the history of the global oil markets, said EIA's mission
is a challenging one, but that the agency sets the bar the world over when it
comes to collecting and disseminating accurate energy information.
"Obviously, getting the data, cleaning up the data and making sense of it is
a big challenge, but it is the gold standard for energy data around the
world," Yergin said in an interview. "And the accessibility of it is so much
greater than other places."
Yergin, who is currently the vice chairman of IHS, a Colorado-based energy
consulting firm, gushed about EIA's Monthly Energy Review, a publication that
typically contains more than 200 pages of charts and graphs showing trends in
"I would say that sometimes my favorite magazine is Monthly Energy Review; I
think it is great," Yergin said.
Edward Morse, the global head of commodities research at Citigroup, agreed
that EIA is a crucial source of data for the industry.
"We use every single data product that they have on US oil and gas," Morse
Morse added that while the international data from EIA was "wonderful in some
respects and terrible in other respects," he said the agency?s US-specific
data is without peer.
"The quality of the data on the US in all respects is better than what can be
obtained anywhere else," Morse said.
CITI's MORSE: EIA TRUSTWORTHY
Morse said EIA's data is far more accurate and reliable than information
provided by energy companies themselves. Morse acknowledged that EIA has not
been immune to the budget-cutting frenzy that has gripped Washington in
recent years, which has impacted the agency?s ability to collect and analyze
But Morse said the energy industry is even worse off on that front. And more
importantly, he said he simply can?t trust forecasts that are provided by
energy companies themselves.
"The private sector has proven to be remiss at providing data," he said.
"They have cut budgets even more than the EIA has, and in any event, industry
groups doing projections of industry data are not exactly heartwarming."
But that is not to say that EIA data is perfect.
Among other things, according to Morse, the agency has been handicapped by
small budgets, and has been unable to add crucial changes in the US energy
landscape to its analyses.
For example, EIA analysts have built models based on fundamental supply and
demand assumptions that have changed radically in recent years, as advances
in hydraulic fracturing have wildly increased US natural gas production. But
EIA has only recently started to work those new assumptions into its
calculations, Morse said.
"They are handicapped by the now-out-of-date, third-party-provided model that
they use for the relationship between economic growth and petroleum products
and natural gas demand growth, but I'm sure that will also improve over
time," he said.
In addition, EIA has fallen behind in maintaining data on how petroleum is
moved around the country. As pipeline capacity has become tight in some parts
of the US, companies have increasingly looked to railroads to move oil to
"They recognize that there is significantly more movement inside the United
States of petroleum products by rail," Morse said. "They do a very good job
on pipeline dynamics; they do a terrible job on rail dynamics."
Sieminski agreed that EIA needs better data to reflect changes how oil and
oil products move around the US.
"Right now that is a little bit slow, and the detailed knowledge of that is
not as good as we think it probably needs to be, given the growth in how much
oil is moving on the railroads now," Sieminski said.
Sieminski also said EIA is looking to expand its natural gas production
survey from eight states to about 30 states, and expand the monthly survey it
collects from well operators on state-level gas production to encompass oil
production as well.
He also said he was confident that appropriators in Congress understand EIA?s
need for the data, and would therefore provide funding the changes.
ONE WEAK SPOT: 'TERTIARY' INVENTORIES
For the keenest consumers of EIA data, there can always be more.
Morse, who said his office at Citi already uses all of EIA?s oil and gas
data, said EIA should start collecting so-called "tertiary inventory"
information, which includes home heating stocks and the diesel that large
delivery operations such as FedEx and UPS store onsite. That data is crucial
to understanding the overall picture of supply and demand in the US, Morse
"Without sampling techniques, you'll never know the degree to which there is
destocking or restocking," he said. "And you will end up misleading everybody
on how the relationship between various measure of economic activity --
whether it is GDP or per-capita income growth -- relates to petroleum product
In the past, some have complained that while EIA data is important, it has
been difficult to find on the agency's website. And to keep up with its data
collection and analysis, EIA is also reforming the way it shares its data on
The agency has created a "state energy portal," which allows users to map
energy infrastructure in individual states, such as pipelines and power
plants. The tool provides the most up-to date EIA statistics on energy
consumption and production, prices and electricity supplies in the states,
among other information.
In addition, some EIA data, such as electricity and state-level data sets, is
now available in a format that allows private-sector web developers to use it
directly, creating apps or other programs more easily.
Another new feature on EIA's website aimed at making data more accessible is
the electricity data browser. It allows users to examine electricity data
sets, including consumption, generation, retail sales of electricity and many
--Derek Sands, email@example.com