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EIA Weighs Limiting Automated Downloading of Oil, Gas Reports

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) is seeking comments on process and technological changes to ensure "fair access" to the agency's weekly reports on petroleum and natural gas inventories.

The agency has "recently faced significant challenges in this area [particularly with the use of 'robots'] that may require changes in the process and/or technologies used for disseminating weekly data," the EIA said in the request for comments, which was published in the Federal Register last Wednesday.

The use of automated retrieval programs known as "robots" to access on-line EIA data, in combination with the ability to program trading based on data received by robots through electronic interfaces in oil and gas commodities markets, gives some parties an unfair advantage in obtaining the reports while keeping others shut out and unable to quickly download the EIA reports, according to the agency.

"With...the ability to use software 'robots' to access on-line data and the ability to automate trading based on data received by robots through electronic interfaces, a time difference in access to this information on the order of even a second or two could have implications for commercial users," as well as journalists and energy consultants, the EIA said.

The petroleum report is issued at 1 p.m. EDT each Wednesday, while the natural gas weekly storage report comes out at 10:35 a.m. EDT each Thursday. They are loaded on the EIA's website prior to the scheduled release time and placed behind a software "gate," which prevents access to the reports before the release time, the agency said. At the time of release the gate is removed and parties are given access to the weekly information on oil and gas stocks.

Industry, traders, energy analysts and journalists eagerly await the release of the weekly reports. Any surprises in the reports are usually enough to cause a swing in oil and gas futures prices in either direction.

The demand for the two reports has climbed this year. For example, during the first half of this year attempts to access the EIA's website for the petroleum report at about the time of release rose from fewer than 100 hits per second to a typical peak of between 1,000 and 5,000 hits per second. The natural gas storage report is popular as well, although to a lesser extent than the petroleum report, the agency said. "The immediate reason for the surge in hits on the EIA website is the more active use of robots."

The EIA "has more actively blocked robots from IP [Internet Protocol] addresses with prior patterns of excessive attempts to download information. EIA is developing the ability to block real-time activity beyond predetermined thresholds. And...EIA has asserted its intent to report robot activity in accordance with its security policy, which could result in criminal prosecution under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1996," the agency said.

The EIA is asking for comments on several issues, including:

Comments are due by Nov. 14. They should be directed to Karen Robinson of the Office of Oil and Gas either by FAX (202-586-9739) or by e-mail at karen.robinson@eia.doe.gov.

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