Lest you put too much stock in, er, stocks, a cautionary note about the trouble the Energy Information Administration is having counting our oil stockpiles (note the less-than-assuring words from EIA’s chief):
The U.S. government faces “critical” shortcomings in producing its oil-inventory data, according to internal Department of Energy documents, casting doubt on figures that affect the production and prices of the world’s most important industrial commodity.
The documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, expose several errors in the Energy Information Agency’s weekly oil report, including one in September that was large enough to cause a jump in oil prices, and a litany of problems with its data collection, including the use of ancient technology and out-of-date methodology, that make it nearly impossible for staff to detect errors. A weak security system also leaves the data open to being hacked or leaked, the documents show.
Moreover, problems with EIA data underscore the hazards of depending on companies or other firms to self-report data.
Internal emails and a report from a consulting firm prepared in September describe a process at the EIA that served the oil world well in 1983, the first year that oil futures traded, but hasn’t kept up as the inventory data have become more influential and the nation’s oil infrastructure has become more complex.
The EIA has been producing the data on oil and fuel inventories since the early 1980s, and the release of the report each Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. is a major event for oil markets. The division collects data from thousands of facilities, all reporting the number of barrels held in storage around the nation. But many of its systems haven’t been updated for 30 years, and much of the data input is done manually, according to one report commissioned for the EIA, prepared by consultants SAIC Inc. The consulting group directed questions to the EIA.
The EIA, the statistical arm of the Department of Energy, didn’t find most of SAIC’s findings a surprise, said Stephen Harvey, director of the EIA’s office of oil and gas, which puts out the weekly data.
“Should you be concerned? Yes. Is it as good as we’d like it to be? No. Is it better or worse than some other countries where we’d like to know this information? It’s probably a whole lot better,” Mr. Harvey said.
The internal documents obtained by Dow Jones Newswires cataloged several instances in the past three years in which companies misreported the amount of oil they had in storage, sometimes by over two million barrels in each weekly survey over the course of a year, a significant error considering that amount can account for the entire change in inventories from week to week.
We can’t even count how many barrels of oil we’ve got, but we think we know everything there is to know about climate?