When the Rules Get Ahead of the Data, There Is Nowhere To Hide

The influence of social media has created a lot of concern these days. Facebook was founded by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004, along with fellow Harvard College students and roommates Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz, and Chris Hughes.

In 2020, the global number of Facebook users is expected to reach 1.69 billion, up from 1.34 million in 2014. Nearly two-thirds of adults in the United States (68% to be precise) report that they are Facebook users.

The usage of social media around the world continues to increase. Social media statistics from 2019 show that 3.5 billion people use social media worldwide, and this number is only growing. That is nearly half of the world’s population (45%) in less than 2 decades.

Social media platforms are now undeniably a major source of news and information, as well as a tool for connecting with friends. But that is not all. Social media platforms are unique in the way they interact with customers for businesses. Not only do they provide a platform for users to communicate beyond local and social boundaries, but they also offer countless possibilities to share user-generated content, such as photos and videos.

Users trade personal information for free services. It is an amazing business model.

The effect of social media, however, is different in each generation. To break it down, 90.4% of Millennials, 77.5% of Generation X, and only 48.2% of Baby Boomers are active social media users.

Social media statistics also reveal that an average of 3 hours is spent per day per person on social networks and messaging. The number of daily active Instagram Stories users has increased from 150 million in January 2017 to 500 million in January 2019.

Add in Twitter (175 million registered users), WeChat (more than 1 billion active monthly users), TikTok (more than 1 billion users), YouTube (2 billion users worldwide), Instagram (1 billion active monthly users), LinkedIn (more than 300 million actives users), and others to the Facebook crowd and the online community is enormous. Demand for print newspapers maybe declining, but mobile-friendly content across social media is rapidly increasing; 91% of all social media users access social channels via mobile devices. Likewise, almost 80% of total time spent on social media sites occurs on mobile platforms.

Most of the experts agree that, in social media, the technology has gotten way ahead of the rules and ahead of the rule-makers as recent Congressional hearings in the US have shown how some lawmakers are nearly clueless about this social revolution. It is easier than ever for people (on their smart phones) to get the news. But what news are they paying attention to?

The issues of the massive influence of social media platforms, of fake-news sites, foreign intervention in elections, the growing interest in conspiracy theories and radical ideologies, and the effect of cyberbullying on young users have traditional media sources, legislators, and regulators at a loss for an effective response.

What happens when proactive regulations get ahead of our ability to gather and understand data and to economically and operationally follow new regulations? Are you guilty before being proven innocent or even being aware of what the data are saying? Are oil and gas operators on the defensive before they even get started with new regulations? Are these regulations out ahead of our ability to follow them? Are we set up for failure before we are even out of the starting gate?

One example is emissions data reporting. Several states are now asking oil and gas operators to self-report their flaring and fugitive emissions data to get regulatory permits to operate. That is a good start but only if the data are trusted and understood.

In their book “The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World,” authors Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West write, “Numbers are ideal vehicles for pushing a version of the truth which can be manipulated to tell whatever story one desires. Humans understand that words are subjective, but we see numbers and images differently. Numbers suggest precision and imply a scientific approach. People are so convinced of the primacy of numbers that skeptics claim they ‘just want to see the data,’ or demand to be shown ‘the raw numbers,’ or insist we ‘let measurement speak for themselves.’ We are told ‘the data never lie.’ But this perspective can be dangerous. Even if a figure or measurement is correct, it can still be used to mislead. For numbers to be transparent, they must be placed in an appropriate context. Numbers must be presented in a way that allows for fair comparisons.”

Now, you are probably asking yourself, isn’t this the guy who has been an evangelist of the digital oil field for 20 years.

Isn’t this the professor who teaches petroleum data analytics at the Colorado School of Mines? Why is he calling for caution on using data?

While I hope you will keep reading to better understand why I remain an evangelist for the digital oil field, I am also a skeptical evangelist in the proper use of data and the need to set proper context before trying to understand what the data are saying.

As I wrote in a recent article (“In Search for a Trusted Messenger”), “whether it is the medical community; the drug companies; politicians; the media; celebrities,. or in this situation, monitoring of methane emissions and air quality from oil and gas operators and regulators, any communications without trust are just speaking to your own supporters—not to all the stakeholders that need to be involved.”

An example of potential abuse of data involves environmental researchers and nongovernmental organizations who are turning to satellite data to check on those self-reporting oilfield and midstream operators.

The headlines are not good in some cases.

You can argue about the spatial and temporal limitations of satellite data or the sensitivity of the instruments from so far away, but the emerging studies are telling the story that, while some players are following (and exceeding) the rules, not all flaring, venting, and leaks are being reported. That news does not help to develop trust between the industry and the surrounding community.

Technology never seems to be the problem. We have a lot of data (with more coming) to look at and use to build event alarms and predictive models. Without trust, however, the arguments still divide operators from communities and regulators. Where is that trusted messenger? Where is the deeper understanding of the field data?

Clearly, the issue of reducing the carbon footprint of oil and gas operations is a high priority for our industry, along with safety, efficiency, and effective production of hydrocarbon resources.

Most operators are serious and responsible in efforts to meet all these objectives and are investing in programs to reduce their carbon footprint. Using data to make better decisions is imperative for the industry’s long-term survival, but we need to slow down a bit to understand what the data are really saying.

Many operators may not have a good means to measure their venting, flaring, and fugitive operations emissions volumes accurately, and they need help understanding the data they have to provide a more accurate report.

What about sampling (spatial and temporal)? What about sensitivity of sensors and calibration issues in the field? What about the effect of weather and local conditions? What about questions of correlation vs. causation? What about false positives and accurate identification and locations? Does that context come out in the headlines, the hearings, and the regulations?

All of these questions call for us to understand the data better and not throw out all the analysis and modeling work. They call for everyone to let the data tell its story; but that story may not be the one we believe at the start. Turning compliance to regulations without really understanding the data can be dangerous. This requires more work, often the hard work of data profiling, verification, and model building that does not make the headlines.

It takes skills in programming, statistics, and production engineering. This is the hard work that needs to get more attention. It also needs a firm understanding of basic science such as physics and chemistry; some things that the industry is being accused of just do not happen in nature.

To move forward, we need a better understanding of the practical application of monitoring (whether it is from a satellite, a drone, an aircraft, or monitoring stations just beyond the fence line or someone with binoculars).

I am advocating for a middle ground.

Collect the data and understand what it is telling us. Be objective and just a bit skeptical before determining the appropriate context. Then, maybe, the data will tell a story that all stakeholders can believe and use to make the best decisions from a common understanding. This is not the easy way. It is the harder path, but it is one I believe gets to the truth for all of us.

Jim Crompton, SPE, is a professor of practice in the Petroleum Engineering Department at the Colorado School of Mines. He retired from Chevron in 2013 after almost 37 years with the company and founded Reflections Data Consulting in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Crompton was an SPE Distinguished Lecturer in 2010–2011, speaking on the topic of “Putting the Focus on Data,” and is a member of SPE’s Digital Energy Technical Section and chairman of the section’s Digital Transformation Committee. His interests lie in the full spectrum of the information value chain from data capture, data management, data visualization, data access, modeling and analytics, and simulations. Crompton holds a BS degree in geophysical engineering and an MS degree in geophysics, both from the Colorado School of Mines, and an MBA degree from Our Lady of the Lake University.


When the Rules Get Ahead of the Data, There Is Nowhere To Hide

Jim Crompton, Colorado School of Mines

10 November 2020



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