Colombia oil stats get less transparent

Colombia’s Agencia Nacional de Hidrocarburos, the agency that regulates the oil and gas industry, has a long tradition of publishing useful statistics about oil and gas output, oil wells drilled, the extent of seismic exploration — lots of info. Here’s a sample. But lately, the data hasn’t been coming out like clockwork every month. The June numbers failed to show up on schedule so at the end of the month I called the agency. They said they didn’t publish such things. I tweeted about it and all was set straight.

July got posted at some point. August output numbers appeared in early September and the full August report appeared on the ANH website Oct. 4. That same day, the mining ministry put out September output numbers, but the ANH never updated its spreadsheets. Last week, the oil ministry released October output figures — a big gain for once. But on the ANH website, there’s still no sign of even September figures — either preliminary output numbers or the full report. I mentioned it to the ANH on Twitter and they said to get the data from the mining ministry. It makes me wonder why they have stopped publishing. It’s annoying.

What I want to know is why Colombia has moved toward less transparency. Now, this is a bit annoying, me just jumping to conclusions, and I would be happy to be proved wrong. But I tell you how it looks. It used to be that the monthly oil output figures just kept rising. Here’s a chart I published 18 months ago based on ANH data.

Then, a year later, that ever-so-smooth increase got all jittery.

The big-picture story here is clear: Colombia went from steadily boosting oil output to struggling to maintain oil output over the past couple years. That’s because of some mix of a less-empowered military, a resurgent guerrilla campaign, delays in environmental permits for water disposal, and community and labour conflicts.

At the month-to-month level, I wonder — based entirely on circumstantial evidence — if the extremely smooth line up to the middle of last year might be a little too smooth. It reminds me a bit of how GE’s net income used to rise every year. As the Wall Street Journal reported back in 1994, “GE’s earnings have risen every year… The gains, ranging between 1.7% and 17%, have been fairly steady… GE almost seems able to override the business cycle… How does GE do it? One undeniable explanation is … fundamental growth… But another way is ‘earnings management,’ the orchestrated timing of gains and losses to smooth out bumps and, especially, avoid a decline.” That looks especially likely when you see the turbulence in gas output and the smoothness of supposed oil output. This never clicked for me at the time, but now I have to say it looks fishy.

Anyway, at the levels of both month-to-month volatility and long-term trend, the story from Colombia has ceased to be such a fairy tale. And lo and behold, the story falls silent.

I know it’s hard for governments and agencies and companies to understand this, but transparency is a fundamentally good thing. You need to be transparent in good times and bad. Falling silent in bad times only reduces the public’s faith in the positive figures when they eventually arrive.

But I shouldn’t complain. As a reporter, I thrive on secrecy. When the facts are harder to come by, it’s easier for me to get a scoop. Public good, schmublic good. Why should I care?