Data on Oil, Gas, Mining Projects Often Incomplete, Missing or Inaccessible
Finding data about the drilling and mining of oil, gas and minerals on public lands can be a difficult proposition, at best, and often leaves people who live and work in these areas with too little information on environmental impacts, worker safety, and company ownership and revenues, according to a survey of members of various communities across the country where extractive industry activities take place.
The government should publish data on extractive industry revenues at the lease-level, according to the 33 survey respondents. Currently, the federal government publishes annual revenue data from extractive activities at the state level. Nearly all survey respondents said this level of transparency is not enough, and that they have a hard time tracking down the data they need on extractive activities that take place on public lands.
According to one survey respondent, a community organizer based in South Dakota, "Data is difficult to find if available, and is not always readily available at all."
Why POGO Conducted This Survey
The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) undertook this survey to help determine what level of granularity of government data on natural resources revenue would be useful to the public. This question is especially relevant now, as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is expected to release new rules next year on mandatory company revenue disclosure, and the Interior Department is spearheading the U.S. Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (USEITI), which calls for similar disclosures.
The USEITI, a multi-stakeholder group composed of representatives from government, industry, and civil society, is deciding how the federal government and companies should report natural resources revenues from public lands. The initiative’s guidelines call for “project-level reporting,” which must be consistent with a section of the Dodd-Frank Act provision that is the basis for the new SEC rules as well as a complementary European Union law.
What POGO Found: Public Demand for Lease-level Reporting
POGO reached out to civil society stakeholders from around the country and heard back from people from over 20 states with interests in a variety of natural resources. Nearly all of the respondents said they already seek out and use available government and industry data on extraction. As such, they represent the people most likely to read and use the forthcoming USEITI report.
Out of 33 respondents, 28 said they think the federal government should publish revenue data by lease for leasable commodities, such as oil, gas, and coal. For hard rock minerals, which are not leasable, respondents said data should be available at the mine level.
In addition to lease- and mine-level data, 18 people indicated that they also want publicly available data from the government by county and by state.
While a few of the respondents work for national or global nonprofit or advocacy organizations, most are focused on a single state or region in the United States, and their data needs reflect their localized interests. For instance, some respondents indicated they want the federal government to provide data—such as the names of companies for each oil lease in their state—that would only be available through lease-level reporting.
Some Revenue Data Already Exists, but It’s Hard to Find
Of the 33 survey respondents, 30 told POGO that they don’t believe the federal government publicly discloses enough information about the revenues it collects from oil, gas, and mineral extraction on public lands.
Many of the respondents detailed the efforts they make to find information about the extractive projects in their communities. Their methods of obtaining data included:
- Submitting Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to government agencies
- Driving to government offices to pick up hard copies of data (because electronic versions were not available)
- Reading litigation related to extractive projects
- Relying on larger civil society organizations to provide data and analysis
- Piecing together information from different government agencies “that might leave traces [of data] in documents”
- Following the Federal Register
- Visiting the websites of the Energy Information Administration, U.S. Census Bureau, and state energy and tax revenue offices
- Reading information they receive from mailing lists, from both governmental and non-governmental sources
- Developing relationships with landowners who may have information
- Relying on word of mouth
As one respondent said, “I have found it hard to collect data - it is in too many places and broken down into too many different ways.”
Going Beyond Revenue Data
Nearly all respondents said that revenue data isn’t enough to provide a full picture of extractive activities. When asked what other information on natural resource extraction would be useful to them, the most common response—coming from nearly half the respondents—was more information on the environmental impacts of drilling and mining, including its effects on water sources.
A few people also said they want to see more evidence that the government is performing oversight and enforcing penalties on companies that violate environmental compliance standards.
“How are the agencies overseeing safety and environmental compliance and what actions are being taken to correct problems?” asked a respondent whose works in the Gulf of Mexico region. “Are penalties issued? Is there follow up?” they continued.
One respondent with an interest in gas and coal activity said they find it hard to collect the data they need to “follow the money.”
Another respondent, who works for a conservation group in Idaho said, “Since the industry is so interconnected, information about who really owns what company would be useful in determining whether a proposed mining project is likely or whether it is more speculative.”
Below is a list of some of the information respondents said they would like to see made public—and electronically accessible—by the federal government:
- A more transparent reporting system for pollution incidents, including information on the investigation results and the identity of the responsible party
- Data on the “financial assurance,” mining companies pay in advance for mine site cleanup in case the company later abandons the site
- Pipeline data
- Air quality monitoring and violation data
- Identification of every extractive project’s “beneficial” owner to reveal the true identities of shell companies
- Extractive industry worker health data
- User-friendly inspection, investigation, and accident reports
- Data on production volumes for oil, gas, and mining
- Data on the cost of extractive activities on water operations
- Maps indicating which companies lease what land
- Record of Decision for mines
- Value of assets stripped from ore bodies
- Environmental Impact Assessments for each extractive project
- Data about coal exports
- Requests for mine exploration permits
- Data on the jobs created by extractive projects
The Special Case of Hard Rock Mining
As several of the survey respondents noted, because the federal government does not collect royalties from hard rock mining (which includes such commodities as gold, iron, and copper), it is difficult to find reliable information on hard rock mining activities.
A respondent who works on hard rock mining issues explained:
The USGS [U.S. Geological Survey] generates annual information about annual metal production (e.g., gold, copper, etc.), but it doesn't provide data on the amount that's generated on federal public lands, or individual project data. There's no centralized data for the number of hard rock mines on federal land, total production on federal land, and individual production for mines on federal land. There's no information on the amount of financial assurance for each mine on federal land, or water use, water treatment or water treatment costs for mines on federal lands. All of this information should be made publicly available.
As to the question of mine-level reporting for hard rock minerals, another respondent who works on mining issues said, “It's ridiculous not to consider a hard rock mine a project. Mines are enormous!”
While some publicly available data about natural resource extraction on public lands exists, the people POGO surveyed say that it’s not enough and that there are real barriers to obtaining what little information is currently available.
The majority of respondents indicated that having access to government-released lease-level data (for oil, gas, and coal projects) and mine-level data (for hard rock mining projects) would be helpful to the work of their organizations, many of which advocate for people who live in communities where extraction takes place.
Image from the Orange County Archives.
1. The Department of the Interior’s Office of Natural Resource Revenue publishes data on the federal government’s annual natural resource revenue here.