Show Me the Numbers: Why Canada Needs to Get its Energy-Data House In Order

Amidst the political furor surrounding the recent U.S government shutdown, chances are most people didn’t notice when the Energy Information Administration (EIA) became one of many casualties, sending its staff home and ceasing all analysis and data releases.

For those of you who aren’t as riveted by spreadsheets as I am, the EIA:

“collects, analyzes, and disseminates independent and impartial energy information to promote sound policy making, efficient markets, and public understanding of energy and its interaction with the economy and the environment.”

I often dip into EIA data, so I could sympathize with American energy analysts and policy wonks bemoaning the situation. But I didn’t give it much more thought until University of Alberta environmental economist Andrew Leach weighed in:

Hint: As a Canadian academic studying energy, I shouldn’t be as affected as I am by the US @eia shutdown. We should have an equivalent.

— Andrew Leach (@andrew_leach) October 11, 2013

For all we hear these days about the energy sector’s critical role in our economy, one might fairly assume that our country would have an independent and impartial agency like the EIA. After all, how else might we properly inform public policy development?

But we don’t. And so we can’t.

In Canada, energy data collection and analysis is scattered across numerous agencies and levels of government—an awkward consequence of constitutional arrangements around energy and natural resources. Trying to find, access, and compile energy data on, say, Alberta wind generation statistics can feel like an exercise in futility.

This past summer, the Canadian Council of Energy Ministers unveiled a new, jointly developed mobile website of energy statistics as a pilot project with “the goal of enhancing consistency in energy information and increasing energy awareness in Canada.”

The Energy Info site is an awkward but laudable first attempt at compiling and sharing provincial and national energy statistics. But to be clear, it doesn’t actually make any data accessible, only statistics. It’s one thing to post a graph, but quite another to freely share the raw data underlying it.

We can do better, and a University of Calgary professor has already mapped out how.

Last year, Michal C. Moore—an energy economist at the School of Public Policy—published “A Proposal to Create a Pan-Canadian Energy Information Organization.” It’s a thorough, well constructed proposal that would deliver “the consolidation (i.e., decrease) and streamlining of collection activities, saving money, reducing respondent burdens, and increasing data quality.”

Far from being an ivory-tower exercise, Moore’s proposal includes a proposed structure, staffing and organizational plan, and a five-year budget that would be shared across the federal and provincial governments. As an aside, the proposed $2.5 million/year contribution from the federal government is about 1/10th the amount that Natural Resources Canada will spend on advertising over the next two years.

Despite the fact that Professor Moore’s proposal was requested by Alberta’s Department of Energy, and that Alberta is playing a leadership role in developing a Canadian energy strategy, neither the federal government—nor its provincial counterparts—have expressed any interest in the prospect of a Canadian Energy Information Organization.

And that’s a shame, because it’s hard to envision Canada competing in a global energy economy that is ever-more reliant on big data if our energy data and analytical capacity remain inconsistent, scattered, and small.

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