IEA fears statistics overload as energy industry approaches Year 2000

As the energy industry waits to find out whether its preparations for the Year 2000 computer software problem were successful, it appears the world is more likely to suffers a shortage of statistics than a shortage of fuel.

The International Energy Agency, Paris, expressed concern this week that energy industry statisticians were suffering the same competitive pressures as everyone else in the industry, and that this could impact the industry more seriously than might at first appear obvious.

"In a world," said the IEA, "of ever-increasing energy use and ever-increasing concern about the damage energy can do to the environment the men and women who chart energy statistics around the world are looking for ways to do much more work with less money and fewer people."

This dilemma was highlighted after a 3-day meeting of the international Energy Statistics Working Group at the Paris headquarters of the IEA.

The IEA said that statisticians from 40 countries and a dozen international organizations who gathered for the once-every-5-years event discussed a wide range of subjects: from the statistical impact of such 'new fuels' as biomass and hydrogen to the new role of their profession in the former planned economies of Central and Eastern Europe: "But the theme that came up over and over again was: how to do more with less."

Jean-Yves Garnier, head of the IEA's Energy Statistics Division and host of the meeting, remarked: "We are all trying to be less energy-guzzling and cleaner, but how can we know if a given country is becoming more energy efficient, or reducing its greenhouse gas emissions?

"Obviously we need more and more detailed statistics, not only on the production and consumption of different fuels, , but also on such socio-economic parameters as gross domestic product, added value, the number of cars and miles driven, the size of houses, their heating and air-conditioning systems and so on."

Garnier and others stressed that very elaborate and credible energy statistics would be required to administer the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, under which all industrialized countries have pledged to cut back their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

"But this increased role for energy statistics comes just as governments and private companies are cutting budgets across the boards and, in many cases, slashing their statistical staffs," said the IEA.

"Still another problem has arisen with the widespread liberalization of energy markets. Not only have monopoly companies been placed by a larger number of private companies, thereby increasing the number of actors in the market, but the private companies are often fiercely competitive and try to keep their own numbers to themselves... while seeking to learn as much as they can about their competitors' activities."

In the face of these daunting difficulties, the IEA reported that members of the working group agreed that the best solution lies in cooperation among international, national and private statistical organizations.

A variety of bilateral and multilateral plans for sharing and trading statistics were discussed at last week's meetings, said the agency. Perhaps the most far-reaching of those efforts involved the standardization of the annual questionnaires which international and regional groups send out to national governments. Revisions were made to the questionnaires for coal, oil, natural gas and electricity, and a new standard questionnaire was adopted for renewable energy sources.

The IEA concluded: "Although last week's meetings were private working sessions, their achievements will be widely felt in coming months and years." Along with the IEA, sponsors included the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (of which the IEA is an autonomous agency), the United Nations Statistical Division, the Economic Commission for Europe, the European Commission and Eurostat.

Meanwhile some of the week's volatility in oil prices was attributed to concerns about disruptions to exports from some countries because of the year 2000 computer software problem, though traders' fears were calmed when countries with shut-in capacity volunteered to make up any shortfall.

For example, in Iran the government warned of potential disruptions in oil, power, telecommunications and other public services due to the millennium computer bug.

Mohammad Sepehri-Rad, secretary of Iran's state High Council of Informatics said Tehran had spent $400,000 on its compliance program in Kharg Island in the Gulf, site of some of Iran'' main oil loading terminals, $1 million on Arak refinery and several million on its telecommunications installations.

But he said the chance of disruptions in Iran's computer networks was "far from zero" although officials had prepared contingency plans to deal with the situation. Sepehri-Rad told Reuters last month that only the Arak and Bandar Abbas refineries could be affected by the bug. Arak has a throughput capacity of 150,000 bo/d while the capacity of Bandar Abbas is about 230,000 bo/d. He blamed trade sanctions imposed by the US for delays in Iran's Y2K compliance program.

However, the IEA welcomed reports that Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Venezuela intend to make good oil supplies that may be lost due to computer problems at the New Year. Commenting on wire-service reports of a joint statement issued by Venezuela's Energy Ministry on behalf of the three countries, Robert Priddle, the IEA's Executive Director, said: "Producers and consumers alike need confident oil markets. This is a significant contribution to maintaining that confidence."

According to early reports, ministers from the three producing countries sought to "assure the international oil markets that the oil production in our countries is not at risk." If the so-called Y2K bug does, in fact, disrupt world oil supplies, the statement continued, the three countries would "respond accordingly" by keeping output at constant levels.

Priddle said that both producers and consumers have been working hard to minimize the risk of Y2K disruptions. The probability of serious disruption, he added, was very small. Nevertheless, the IEA director said , "Both producers and consumers have a part to play in dealing with the remaining contingent risk." He added that this action by the producers was "statesmanlike."

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