Satellites Aid the Chase for Better Information on Oil Supplies

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Oil industry statistics are largely furnished by government agencies. The numbers supplied by these departments are considered mostly reliable in the major industrialized countries, which make up about 50 percent of oil consumption. But much of the data is annoyingly slow to arrive.

It “hasn’t become much more timely in 30 years,” said Neil Atkinson, head of the oil industry and markets division at the International Energy Agency, the Paris-based multilateral group whose monthly oil market reports are a kind of industry benchmark.

The rest of the world is “a very, very patchy picture indeed,” Mr. Atkinson said. For instance, the Paris organization and other analysts only manage to put together estimates of how much oil China, a major consumer, is using with “detective work,” through extrapolating from trade and refinery figures and other clues, Mr. Atkinson said.

As for the supply side, OPEC, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, which accounts for about one-third of global oil output, is a “big black hole,” Mr. Atkinson said. Wary of disclosure that could lead to embarrassments like owning up to cheating on agreed production ceilings, the OPEC member states have not “produced or published reliably transparent data for many, many years,” Mr. Atkinson said.

Kayrros is one of several firms trying to make money by using emerging technology to fill in pieces of the data jigsaw. Often these activities focus on giving traders an edge by providing advance forecasts of government data releases on matters like how much oil is in storage. Kayrros mostly focuses on satellite images, which are becoming more readily available at lower cost as satellite companies scan the planet with instruments that are smaller and less expensive through smartphone technology and other breakthroughs.

Rather than pore over individual pictures, the company’s computer scientists and analysts have developed programs that sift through an average of 10,000 images a day of tank farms, oil fields and other facilities and then flag developments that might give clients an edge.

In OPEC countries, for instance, the analysts monitor the light and heat from “flaring” — the controlled burning of natural gas produced along with oil — for clues to activity. These flames can be easily seen from space. In July, for instance, Kayrros analysts noticed that the flares at a Libyan field called Wahah had gone out. Their conclusion: the facility had been shut down because of fighting at coastal ports.

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