The dawning of Big Data in a sustainable world

This is the age of Big Data. Vast, complex sets of information can be gathered, sorted and (most importantly) used, by a public eager to swap verbiage for science. 

And yet, in the energy-environment world, crucial data are often unavailable. Americans should be able to access far more information about energy, air pollution and water than they currently can. The failure occurs at two levels.

There is a failure to gather basic data, such as from air pollution monitors or water meters, and also a failure to share relevant data with the public in a comprehensible format.

Take oil and gas. Hydraulic fracturing is booming, but information about it is remarkably scant. In Texas, no database exists for accidents involving fracking chemicals, even the information seems relatively straightforward to collect. (After all, the Railroad Commission of Texas keeps data on standard oil spills, like the one in Galveston.) That information, which would address a major source of public concern, is absent in some other states too.

The Environmental Protection Agency is trying to gather consolidated information on chemical accidents for a future report on fracking and groundwater, but finding it difficult because of states’ inadequate datasets. Other aspects of oil and gas also merit better public information; FracFocus, for example, offers some interesting data points, but it’s hard to crunch them to come up with broad trends.

As an aside, it would also be great if an academic institution created a one-stop shop for keeping track of fracking policies—baseline water testing, chemical disclosure, disposal well restrictions and so on—in different states, to help the public compare and contrast.

On air pollution, Texas and the nation also struggle. Part of the problem is a lack of monitors. A lengthy investigation by Inside Climate News, the Center for Public Integrity and the Weather Channel found that: “Texas' air monitoring system is so flawed that the state knows almost nothing about the extent of the pollution in the Eagle Ford. Only five permanent air monitors are installed in the 20,000-square-mile region, and all are at the fringes of the shale play, far from the heavy drilling areas where emissions are highest.”

That’s inexcusable, when one of the most serious and indisputable concerns about fracking involves air pollution—from drilling and storage equipment and truck traffic. Sure, the measuring equipment is costly—but the residents of the fast-changing Eagle Ford area clearly deserve basic information, so that they can make decisions about their family’s health. Even when air pollution data is collected, however, it’s often confusing to access—so public presentation needs to be a priority as well.

Water is a third area where more data are sorely needed. Here, too, it’s partly an infrastructure issue. More meters would be welcome. In California, where I live, it’s astonishing that half the homes and businesses in Sacramento—the capital of a state that continually agonizes over droughts —do not have meters. Sacramento has tried to mandate a 20 percent water-usage cut, but that’s simply not possible to enforce if people do not even know how much they are using to begin with.

Water meters for farmers—hardly ubiquitous in California and Texas—would also help get a handle on pumping, beyond the rough estimates (based on the amount of energy to pump) that are widely used now.

We also need better ways of collecting data about water usage—and, most crucially, standardizing it.

When I worked on an interactive database (click here for more information) a few years ago about water rates and usage with the Texas Tribune and Stanford University, I literally had to contact every water utility on the list to obtain average monthly water usage data for a single-family household. Experts told me that this was the best metric to use for water usage, yet that information had to be collected bit by bit, across every utility.

How absurd.

We need solid data to compare different cities and towns within Texas, and Texas cities to the nation.

Some improvements are occurring. The media, ever hungrier for data-reporting, is on the case.

Last year, for example, the Texas Tribune decided to map the location of disposal wells around Texas (click here for more information). The Tribune’s crack data reporter, Ryan Murphy, somehow wrangled the information from the Railroad Commission’s clunky website, and the disposal-well map spent several days as the Tribune's most-viewed item. For months afterward, queries arrived from people wanting to know how to replicate the feat. (The Railroad Commission is upgrading its information-technology capabilities, so hopefully obtaining information like this will be easier in the future.)

Public agencies do publish basic data. But it is often the easiest pickings, or the least controversial.

The Railroad Commission, for example, does an excellent job of publishing oil and gas production data, current and historical. The Texas Water Development Board has a terrific site on reservoir levels. But the public deserves more. We need to access information about bad actors within the drilling industry. We need charts and maps about water quality problems in Texas cities (this would be the TCEQ, I presume, not the TWDB).

Making data available to the public is about transparency and accountability. It provides the tools so that everyone can make responsible decisions. It's time for public agencies—and everyone else—to embrace the software age.


Kate Galbraith is a San Francisco-based journalist covering energy and environmental issues. Previously, she covered energy and the environment for the Austin-based Texas Tribune and reported on clean energy for the New York Times and its Green blog. She continues to write a column on green issues for the New York Times, and also contributes to Foreign Policy.

Kate is co-author of The Great Texas Wind Rush (University of Texas Press, 2013). She has appeared on the PBS Newshour as well as various radio and television outlets. From 2000 to 2007 Kate worked for The Economist. Follow Kate on Twitter @KateGalbraith.


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