Firm brings choppers, spy cameras to oil data game

HOUSTON, Sept 17 Thu Sep 17, 2009 6:58pm EDT

HOUSTON, Sept 17 (Reuters) - A U.S. energy information company has brought a James Bond approach to the otherwise bland job of gathering oil inventory data, hoping high-tech detective work will attract the business of petroleum traders hungry for accurate supply figures.

Kentucky-based Genscape Inc, which has been selling power supply data since it was founded in 1999, has been flying a helicopter over the nation's top oil storage hub in Cushing, Oklahoma, every Friday since January, snapping photos to see how full the tanks are.

The data from the pictures, along with infrared scans for tanks with fixed instead of floating roofs, is analyzed by a sophisticated computer program back at the head office to calculate the volume of oil in storage.

Traditionally, traders seeking market-sensitive information about storage levels at Cushing rely on surveys conducted weekly or monthly by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Energy, and the American Petroleum Institute industry group.

"I think the method that relies on direct measurement is going to be superior to one that relies on a survey in every case," Genscape Vice President Abudi Zein said.

Genscape said its 007-style method showed crude oil inventories at Cushing fell 2.4 million barrels last week -- a much smaller decline than the 3.7-million-barrel drop reported by the EIA, though bigger than the API's 1.9 million.

Oil prices got a boost from the EIA's Cushing data, released Wednesday morning.

The EIA and API say their figures are good and they work to make them better. Traders and analysts say the accuracy of the data has always been a matter of debate because the two organizations' reports often have differed.

Genscape also measures power transmission into Cushing, using a network of remote, wireless devices to monitor multiple points on the transmission grid, information that allows the company to gauge operations that could impact crude oil flows in and out of the hub. (Editing by Christian Wiessner)