An Energy Information Administration proposal to gather data on the quality and ownership of oil produced in the United States has been squelched, despite indications from individual oil companies that the information is readily available and could be provided at little or no cost.
The proposal would have revised a standard reporting form to gather monthly data on crude oil quality, which determines its market price, and quarterly information on ownership at the time of production. EIA officials drafted the new form more than eight months ago after government and private analysts said they needed the information to monitor crude-oil pricing and the financial structure of the oil industry.
But the revised form was derailed last September by the head of EIA, Dr. Helmut Merklein, after the American Petroleum Institute let it be known that industry had no use for the data and didn't think the government needed it, either.
The Citizen/Labor Energy Coalition, a national consumer organization, last week requested investigations into the matter, contending that Merklein improperly allowed the industry's main lobbying arm to influence his decision.
In letters to Attorney General Edwin Meese III, Energy Department Inspector General James R. Richards and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), coalition official Edwin Rothschild also said that Merklein had "compromised the mandated independence" of EIA by seeking the advice of political appointees in the Energy Department and elsewhere before deep-sixing the revisions.
In an interview yesterday, Merklein denied any wrongdoing and dismissed the criticism. "I understand he Rothschild is unhappy because I made a decision that if he had been in my shoes would have been different," Merklein said. "The API is also unhappy. They would have preferred for me to cut the form out altogether."
Merklein said there was no need to alter the form that "has served us well in the past."
But Rothschild said the revisions would have allowed EIA to collect again the kind of data it gathered during oil price deregulation.
The new information would have been particularly useful in analyzing industry mergers and the way crude oil is bought and sold in the United States, he said. "I don't think they want the data out," Rothschild said of API's opposition. "They don't want people to get a good grasp of how the markets work."
API officials were not available for comment yesterday, but in a letter to Merklein shortly after the proposed revision surfaced last April, the institute called the proposal "a substantial burden" that could produce "inaccurate information."
EIA had earlier surveyed 28 domestic oil purchasers, however, and found that most believed the information would be useful and easily collected. Independent oil producers were even more enthusiastic.
Representatives of the Justice Department's antitrust division, the Federal Trade Commission, the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation and private analysts also encouraged the revisions.
Rothschild contends that Merklein ignored the results of that study and instead conducted his own informal "survey," requesting comment from the political bosses of the career employes who had responded to EIA's initial survey.
Merklein said he sent the letters to find out if "the principals" wanted the data gathered. "I just asked the various executives whether that is their position," he said.
Merklein said he hasn't heard back from everyone yet, but he has already notified the Office of Management and Budget that the form will not be changed. "Predominantly, the answers are that we don't need that data," he said. "If Congress feels strongly about it, they can pass a statute."