Why Canada needs better information about all the energy it produces

Trouble analyzing the impact of Alberta's mandatory oil production cuts have renewed calls for more comprehensive and timely data to assess the Canadian energy picture.

'Imagine trying to drive a car while having only the rear-view mirror,' analyst says

A pumpjack works at a well head on an oil and gas installation in Alberta. Faced with the difficult job of assessing the impact of oil production cuts, industry watchers are renewing calls for better access to robust information about Canada's energy sector. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

A lack of information about Canada's energy sector has long been an issue for those trying to gauge how the system is working — from analysts to economists to public policy researchers.

There are several government organizations that compile energy-related data such Statistics Canada, the National Energy Board, Alberta Energy Regulator and Natural Resources Canada. 

But there's no single, official source of up-to-date, comprehensive information on topics related to oil and gas production, renewable energy use, and the environmental impact of the sector, for instance.

Now, difficulty assessing the impact of Alberta's oil production cuts has highlighted those concerns again, prompting renewed calls for faster access to more robust information.

Alberta imposed mandatory production cuts on the oil sector beginning in January in a bid to boost struggling Canadian crude prices, which improved following the move.

However, analysts say it's difficult to know the full impact of the curtailment policy  — and how long it it will be necessary — given a lack of timely, insightful data. 

"We're blind right now," said analyst Samir Kayande, a director at RS Energy Group, in an interview this month.

"How quickly are our stock levels dropping? We don't know. How much volume is actually flowing out of Alberta on a weekly basis on our large liquids pipelines? We don't know.  We won't know how much oil flowed out last quarter for probably another month or two."

Kent Fellows, an economist at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy, says the country needs a Canadian version of the U.S. Energy Information Administration. (CBC)

Timely access to oil storage levels as well as pipeline and crude-by-rail shipping volumes would help.

For storage levels, the Alberta Energy Regulator provides updates each month but lags a month behind. The National Energy Board gives crude-by-rail updates monthly, but with a two-month lag. It gets monthly data from its larger regulated pipelines on a quarterly basis. 

This kind of information should come faster, Kayande said.

"Imagine trying to drive a car while having only the rearview mirror as your viewpoint," he said.

Kent Fellows, an economist at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy, doesn't blame the regulators for the situation. They're generally good at collecting data, he said, but it's not their mandate to assemble and disseminate it.

"What we really need is a Canadian version of the Energy Information Administration," he said. 

The U.S. Energy Information Administration's goal is to collect, analyze and disseminate "independent and impartial" energy information to promote sound policymaking, efficient markets and public understanding of energy.

It doesn't solely focus on oil and natural gas, but the broader energy sector as well, including nuclear and renewable energy. The EIA also provides analysis of the data from various sectors.

That information is often used as part of broader policy discussions on energy.

In 2012, a University of Calgary School of Public Policy report called for the creation of an EIA-style agency in Canada and said it could operate on an annual budget of $5 million. 

The agency would supplement the data collection activities of Statistics Canada by conducting data analyses and offering reports and forecasts based on these analyses, the report recommended.

'Can you compare apples to oranges?'

Fellows said he believes this work would help provide a more complete picture of what's happening in the sector and lead to better policy decisions. 

Canada is currently embroiled in a number of energy policy debates, from pipeline development to oil curtailment to Bill C-69 — a proposed new system for assessing future energy projects. 

Another issue with Canadian energy data is a lack of consistency in how it's reported by the various agencies that collect it, Fellows said.

"Are you actually reporting the same thing in the same way?" he said. "Can you compare apples to oranges?"

University of Alberta energy economist Andrew Leach says Canada just doesn't have the same kind of data gathering powers that the EIA does in the U.S. (CBC)

Also, Canada just doesn't have the same kind of data gathering powers that the EIA does in the U.S, said University of Alberta energy economist Andrew Leach.

"The amount and timeliness of data availability, they've made that a publicly provided and, I would argue, almost a public good in an economic sense that now everybody can access it," Leach said. "That's a big positive."

Kayande said he believes improving the availability of data is a public policy issue. Decision-makers should have the best information possible before setting a direction for the government and an industry, he said.

"You can get stories out in the real world that are divorced from what's actually going on," Kayande said. "The risk is that we're making, as a society, bad decisions that — in some cases — are irreversible."