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How oil companies use BI to maximize profits

Kim S. Nash | June 8, 2008
No one argues that oil isn't one heck of a lucrative industry. And all those profits don't come from good business intelligence practices alone. But it's a powerful notion to run a company with the mind-set that virtually every employee is a data analyst.

Factors in the Price of Gas

Old-timers called oil "Texas Tea," but the U.S. oil industry really started in Pennsylvania, with the 1859 discovery of light crude burbling between rocks in a farmer's creek. People at first used it to grease machinery and light lamps. Fifty years later, rigs pumped black gold from wells across the country and fortunes were made. Now, as then, oilmen cagey about their claims don't say much about what they know. But some will talk about how they know it.

In an industry where the top five oil companies last year booked $1.5 trillion in sales, thieves target that intelligence. In February, for example, Petrobras, the $112 billion state-owned oil giant in Brazil, had four laptops and two hard drives stolen. They contained "secret and important information," the company told Brazilian news outlets, about an ocean reservoir that in the next few years could produce up to 8 billion barrels of oil. Brazilian police are said to be investigating. Geologic information like the sort believed to have been stolen from Petrobras is one piece of the "upstream" part of the business, where companies and countries explore and drill for oil deposits deep in the earth. Analysts combine geologic and seismic data with what-if engineering models showing how best to get the oil out and the projected costs of such a multiyear project, explains Louie Ehrlich, CIO and president of Chevron Information Technology.

Then there is the "downstream" work of refining crude oil into something usable, such as gasoline or diesel, and of getting those products sold and delivered. Those jobs generate information on refinery capacity and throughput, for example, and the cost of marketing and distribution.

Exxon and Chevron, the biggest oil companies in the United States, are known as "integrated," meaning they work both the upstream and downstream ends of the business. Petrobras does, too, though Ehrlich points out that no company is perfectly integrated, meaning that what it finds in the ground always ends up in its own refineries. Chevron might find crude that its refineries don't handle, he says. "Some types of oil require more complex refining capability to process." Chevron produces about 2 million barrels of oil per day and only refines about 15 percent in its own refineries.

Others focus on just one end or the other. Valero, for example, is the biggest U.S. refiner, concentrating on the downstream work of turning oil into other things to sell.

Upstream usually costs more than downstream. Exxon, for example, spent $15.7 billion on upstream jobs in 2007. Chevron, $15.5 billion. But downstream costs stack up, too. Exxon's were $1.1 billion and Chevron's $3.4 billion.


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