Specific aspects are also completely different. Natural gas is far different than oil, downstream businesses have more to do with chemical processing and marketing campaigns. Green energy involves new technology and a strange sociological mess that spans philosophy, religion, alchemy, and soul-searching over turbine-clobbered or solar-fried birds.
The complexity is particularly vexing to the average consumer, for whom all market data, jargon, opinions and news gets boiled down to one yardstick: the price of gasoline. At the end of the day that’s all most consumers are truly interested in.
Who can blame them, because the information stream is so achingly bad that relatively simple concepts become murky through incomplete reporting, total ignorance, or deliberate misrepresentation. For average consumers, it seems impossible to get a clear understanding of how things work, or why they are the way they are. And few people are truly interested in providing clarity. Most energy market information informs in the same way that lobbyists inform politicians.
Energy information sources tend to fall into a few fairly distinct camps. The most forthright and confidence inspiring lot is the group that provides pure, ice-cold technical input, mainly the scientists and engineers of the business. Bless their earnest, misguided hearts. The problem with the information they provide is that it is, for 99.9 percent of the population, useless. For example, Wikipedia can be a motherlode of technical information that is probably wholesomely correct but that only 7 people in the world understand.
Here is the opening sentence in the description of shale oil, a not-unknown subject which has most definitely impacted the lives of the average citizen, and one which said citizen might therefore want to gain some insight: “Shale oil is an unconventional oil produced from oil shale rock fragments by pyrolysis, hydrogenation, or thermal dissolution.” Try to imagine someone nerdy enough to proceed past that opening sentence. You will not be able to do it.
Closely related and slightly more useful are government reporting sites, which contain mountains of data and some inevitable interpretation guides. These sites make excellent reference points for raw data, but are not much help with interpretation. There is no way around that; the data stream is just too huge to tackle without getting lost in the weeds. A truly useful guide to the information would be a wonderful thing but seems to be well beyond the ability or interest of hard-core statisticians.
Another reporting stratum consists of short-term market commentators. Again, not much help because they spend their frantic days ascribing reasons for virtually any market fluctuations, on an hour-by-hour basis. These market ravens are incapable of being silent about any fluctuation. When no reason exists, as is most often the case with random market movements, you see the problem. But they forge on regardless, assertively barking out explanations for any movement, none too small, and interested citizens are left feeling hopelessly ignorant. They shouldn’t, because the commentators have no clue either but bluff their way through. By the time anyone could test their hypotheses, the market has moved again and the cycle repeats.
Industry participants or organizations sometimes step in, possibly trying to be helpful. Occasionally they do provide useful information, such as this truly informative page from ConocoPhillips’ website entitled “What is Oil Used For?” The problem is that the answer is provided by ConocoPhillips. That doesn’t make it wrong, it just makes it suspect, like asking a high-as-a-kite pothead if marijuana is dangerous. The answer may be technically correct, but may not be built on unassailable pillars of logic or cited in scientific journals. So yet again, a potentially useful source gets diminished because the vested interest is so blindingly obvious that the smell of propaganda permeates everything like campfire smoke. As with routine corporate financial reports, a balanced viewpoint will not be found. The emphasis will be on whatever facet the company wants to highlight. This information would be considered unbalanced by anyone except those with the naiveté of a small child.
At the other end of the spectrum are climate change fanatics, who mercilessly twist facts and observations to create a literary fire hose of doomsday prophecies. For example, pipelines have become a symbol of death. We all know it’s nothing but a pipe, but with enough spices even a baseball mitt can make soup. A textbook example is this drivel provided by the reality-warping propagandists Environmental Defence (whose primary concerns are neither environmental nor defensive) about the grave danger posed by Canada’s proposed Energy East pipeline, in an article entitled “Clean Drinking Water: More Important than Dirty Oil”. The story’s sub header explains that the “Energy East pipeline would threaten the drinking water of 5 million Canadians.” That’s true, in the same sense that the author of the piece threatens the health of 100 Torontonians whenever he clambers aboard a subway car with the flu. Or, translated into Environmental Defence hyperbole, the story would read “Bad journalist attempts commuter train mass murder through germ warfare.”
It is a very odd situation in our society that there is no formal education option devoted to energy. Many disciplines touch on it, but none work to explain the whole. A few newer ones are dedicated to renewable energy. That is important and forward thinking, but also dangerous and stupid if it’s limited to that end of the spectrum. A true understanding of the energy business is woefully inadequate if it starts and ends with renewables. What good is a field of study that ignores (or refuses to learn about) the systems that define 99 percent of it? It’s like becoming a biologist by studying only banana trees because you really like bananas.
And sadly that sums up most of the information available about energy. The windows into the business are mostly one-dimensional vested-interest viewpoints. The primary exceptions seem to be those who do it for the love of it, who want concepts to be explained rather than manipulated. The nerds who so lovingly populate Wikipedia with their joyless techno-dialect constitute one group. Another is made of excellent websites like the one you are reading which are interested in furthering knowledge of the industry in readable terms. Both groups are made of people who strive to provide information in an unbiased form for compensation that would not sustain a rat. It is necessary to consider the motives of information sources before relying too heavily on the content.
Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam here