Thursday, July 2, 2015

Moving Beyond FracFocus: Bringing Real Transparency to Fracking

Since its launch in 2011, FracFocus, a government- and industry-funded website, has been the only place where Americans could learn the details about chemicals and water used in fracking operations near their homes, schools and businesses. But FracFocus has never lived up to its promise of bringing true transparency to fracking. And now, at least one state is planning to set its own course for fracking disclosure.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection has announced that it is withdrawing from FracFocus. Starting in March 2016, Pennsylvania’s fracking operators will have to report electronically to a state database that will present citizens with a map-based interface with simple one-click summaries of specific wells, in addition to downloadable bulk data.

Pennsylvania officials say this is to counter FracFocus’s lack of user-friendliness, which has long been a source of consternation to researchers attempting to document the impacts and risks of fracking. For many years, FracFocus’s website was populated with individual PDF files, scanned copies of forms filed by fracking companies. Initially, many of those disclosures were voluntary; as the site’s influence grew, states began requiring frackers to file with FracFocus. But the database was always far from complete.

FracFocus could be useful for citizens curious about an individual well, but the database was notoriously unfriendly to those wanting to probe more deeply into fracking. For a long time, searches could not return more than 2,000 records. From those search results, users could not download more than a small number of actual disclosure forms each day. What they were able to download was not machine-readable or searchable in any way.

Those limitations persisted as FracFocus improved its underlying data structure, in 2013 requiring disclosures to be submitted in a machine-readable format to an electronic database.

It was 2015 before the public was allowed to download machine-readable data. This latest improvement in FracFocus transparency is welcome, but still falls short of modern standards for making data available and accessible to the public. In Frontier Group’s work on government spending transparency, we have argued that, to be useful to the public, transparency data must (among other things) be searchable, bulk-downloadable, and “one-stop,” meaning that citizens shouldn’t have to jump through multiple hoops or have specialized knowledge to obtain important information.

By contrast, here’s what the average person would have to do to even look at the bulk-downloadable data from FracFocus:
  • Download, install, configure and operate a major database server system, Microsoft SQL Server Management Studio, as well as SQL Server Configuration Manager. They are free, but hard to find on the Microsoft download website (the latest version is here). They have terribly un-intuitive interfaces once they’re running. They are also PC-specific, so Mac users are out of luck.
  • Purchase Microsoft Access, a database program not included in the regular version of Microsoft Office (the one that includes Word, Excel and PowerPoint). Microsoft charges $109.99; Amazon’s price is $99.99. (You could use a different database program, but the instructions provided by FracFocus are Access-specific.)
  • Follow a complicated series of steps – laid out in a nine-page PDF document provided by FracFocus – to convert the data to a form usable by Microsoft Access.
  • Construct queries in Access – not a simple point-and-click database program by any stretch – and interpret the results.
This process is not for the faint of heart, nor for the computer-inexperienced.

Even then, the data are not presented clearly. Rather than a company simply listing how many gallons of water and how many pounds of which chemicals it pumped deep underground at which well, key numbers are presented as percentages of the final fracking fluid. That requires a significant series of careful database queries and spreadsheet calculations to get actual usable figures.

With luck, Pennsylvania’s reporting system will set a new standard for public disclosure of, and citizen access to, data related to fracking. The creation of separate databases for every state where fracking occurs is not the ideal solution – a high-quality national database would be better. But until FracFocus catches up to the standards of data quality and user-friendliness people expect in the 21st century, citizens will need to look to the states to protect their access to this important information that affects their health and well-being.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

EPA Study Confirms Fracking’s Dangers to Drinking Water

Does fracking harm drinking water? The EPA spent five years studying it. And from some of the press coverage, you might be confused about the answer.

But here is the real bottom line: The EPA study finds that fracking can harm drinking water in a variety of well-understood ways. It also finds that fracking has harmed drinking water in a number of instances across the country. And there are likely many more instances of harm from fracking than the EPA or anyone else has yet discovered.

The EPA concludes that fracking is linked to “important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources.” Translation: Fracking threatens water quality. Period.

The threats are five-fold, according to the EPA’s report:
  • Fracking can strain water resources, especially in dry places or regions suffering from drought.
  • Chemicals used in fracking, fracking fluid, and water from underground formations (which can be laced with toxics and radioactive elements), all have the potential to leak into water supplies.
  • Wells can be drilled into underground aquifers.
  • Chemical-laden liquids and gases can move through fractured rock underground, exiting formations that contain oil and natural gas, and entering water-bearing formations.
  • Fracking wastewater can be stored, treated and disposed of in ways that risk causing water pollution.
These are among the threats that researchers have been chronicling for years. The fracking industry has tried to sidestep these concerns, but the EPA report underscores that the threats are real.

The dangers the EPA found, and the occasions on which they are known to have contaminated drinking water, may not be the only ways fracking threatens drinking water. The EPA’s report notes that researchers encountered severe data limitations – including industry-backed restrictions on publicizing the number and location of fracking wells, as well as the identities and quantities of chemicals used – that limit our ability to know the full truth about fracking’s dangers.

The question now is what to do with the knowledge we do have. Should fracking be banned outright? Can stronger regulations be sufficiently protective of the public? Or should we continue with business as usual?

In considering the answer to those questions, it is important to ask a few others:
  • Is a short-term boost in fossil fuel production worth risking enduring damage to groundwater supplies – damage that can be prohibitively expensive, if not impossible, to fully clean up?
  • Is it fair to subject those living in areas where fracking takes place to the risk of water contamination in order to deliver cheaper fossil fuels to the rest of us?
  • Is it smart to allow the widespread use of a self-evidently risky technology for more than a decade before determining whether it poses a threat to drinking water?
  • Drinking water contamination is just one of many potential dangers posed by fracking. If one adds the public health damage caused by fracking-related air pollution, the damage to natural areas, the impact on local infrastructure and quality of life, and other costs of fracking, is it ever worth doing?
Cities across the country, as well as the state of New York, have come to the conclusion that the answer to the last question is “no” – fracking simply isn’t worth the risks.

Even in places where fracking continues to take place, however, the EPA report has important implications. The risk posed by fracking to water supplies justifies requiring fracking companies to post bonds or other forms of financial assurance sufficient to ensure that the companies – not taxpayers – pay the full cost of cleaning up any damage.

And the data gaps in the EPA report indicate that it is critical to improve data collection on drinking water sources before and after fracking occurs, as well as to conduct additional hydrological studies about all methods of potential contamination of our precious drinking water sources.

We need to protect everyone’s water – including those people who live in areas where fracking is widespread. We should not threaten the scarce and valuable water supplies on which our lives depend by extracting from the ground polluting fossil fuels whose combustion endangers our very existence.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Getting the Public into the Policy Act

The other morning I met a disgruntled woman at my bus stop. She had been waiting more than 20 minutes for a bus to come along, after which three buses showed up in rapid succession. While we stood on the curb, she fumed: Rather than getting three buses at 30-minute intervals, couldn’t the transit agency send one bus every 10 minutes?

It turns out, though, that there are reasons for “bus bunching,” and one of the best ways to learn about the problem – and identify possible solutions – is to play a simple game created by engineering student Lewis Lehe and designer Dennys Hess (h/t CityLab). Through the game interface, you can try out your ideas for how to reduce or prevent bus bunching, with system responses that match the academic literature on the subject.

Game interfaces have the potential to be great tools for democratic engagement in policy making. They make complicated concepts understandable to a wide range of people, and enable ordinary citizens (and policy-makers) to test out potential scenarios for improvements.

I first did this in SimCity, the brilliant Maxis game series I played during middle and high school on my dad’s PC. I could create a city with no roads and only rail, or just subways. I could eliminate bus service and watch how my city thrived or collapsed into ruin. SimCity addressed many policy areas beyond transportation, including taxes, pollution from electricity generation, mixed-use land planning, police and fire coverage, and educational access.

SimCity and its ilk have allowed me and countless others to engage with these issues and experiment with solutions. Games don’t have to be complicated to be effective communicators. Among the many options are these simpler highlights that still give enough nuance to be fascinating:
Information doesn’t even have to be playable: Just looking like a game can make it more accessible, as in this video about subway delays from the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority.

The wider the range of options – as SimCity had, and Cities: Skylines, a just-out game that’s touted as its intellectual heir – the greater the potential for mass public involvement, and creative solution experimentation.

This can create a more informed public, which is essential to good government – if the rules of the game accurately represent reality. If games have the power to educate and engage, they also have the power to mislead.

But gamification of public policy choices and dilemmas isn’t just for recreation. Getting large numbers of people to play such games can enable us to crowd-source solutions to real-world problems, educate the public about critical policy choices and dilemmas, gain critical information about public concerns and preferences, and support richer, more informed, and more diverse participation in public policy debates.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Revamping Urban Bus Routes: Data Analysis Tools Show the Way

As cities across the country wrestle to reconcile increasing demand for transit services with budget challenges, optimizing transit service can be a key tool for squeezing maximum value out of every available transportation dollar. Data-powered evaluations offer the potential of making those decisions easier and provide better outcomes.

The transit agency serving Houston just revamped its entire route structure and schedule in search of improved efficiency.

Like in many cities, Houston’s previous route plan was 30 years old, and was based on residential and employment centers at that time. And as in most cities, what updates have occurred were modifications based on the old system, making only incremental attempts at accommodating the major shifts in urban living and working patterns over the decades.

Now there are tools that can help policymakers and the public understand what those shifts mean, offer ways to respond effectively, and potentially even keep pace with changes in future years.

Houston’s new plan, scrapping a downtown-centric hub-and-spoke layout in favor of a citywide grid system, is slated to take effect in August; anyone interested in urban transit systems should watch how the transition goes there, to learn what to do as well as, perhaps, some pitfalls to avoid.

Regardless of how Houston’s effort fares, cities across the country are going to need to transition their 20th century transportation systems to ones ready for the 21st century. Fortunately, there are new tools that can help policymakers and residents alike better understand the systems that exist now, and model the potential results of proposed changes.

For inventorying the service potential of existing systems, there are several examples:
For imagining how transit systems could work better overall, and for testing potential results of changes, Transitmix, an online system allowing people to create their own bus lines on data-filled maps of the real world has transitioned from game to tool used by professionals. The Oregon Department of Transportation is the first to sign up to use Transitmix to assess service statewide; the modeling potential is significant.

With these new data-powered tools, planning transportation for the city of the future can involve more people, more perspectives and more potential options.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Water, Pollution, Electricity Problems? Sewage Could Be the Solution

Earlier this month, Bill Gates made headlines around the world by drinking a glass of water. Five minutes beforehand, it had been human sewage.

The water was made by the OmniProcessor, a self-contained unit supported by the Gates Foundation that is targeted at helping the billions of people in the developing world who have no access to sewage sanitation, and who need clean potable water, electricity, and agricultural fertilizer.

For us in the developed world, it is a great example of how viewing issues as interrelated can turn a whole set of problems into solutions.

Thinking about sewage not as waste but as a resource shifts thinking about four vitally important areas of public concern:
  • How to supply enough clean potable water for people to use
  • How to generate enough electricity to meet rising demand
  • How to handle human sewage as population grows and becomes more dense
  • How to reduce pollution from fertilizer and chemical runoff from agricultural facilities
Right now, each of these is a very expensive proposition. But inventors and entrepreneurs are discovering that if addressed together, these problems can help solve each other, dramatically reducing costs, potentially paying for themselves, and possibly even generating a profit.

Producing safe drinking water and treating sewage costs about $7.5 billion a year in the U.S. alone, and the processes requires as much as 2 percent of total national electricity consumption, according to a June 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Energy [PDF].

Many of these treatment systems are wearing out, and need investment to be able to continue handle their existing workloads, much less accommodate future growth. The total cost estimate is nearly $700 billion over the next 20 years, according to that U.S. DOE report, which calls for combining elements of national energy and water policy efforts to promote self-sustaining wastewater treatment plants.

The water in sewage can be separated and purified. Bacteria that digest the waste produce methane that often qualifies as a renewable fuel, and can be burned to produce electricity or replace natural gas from deep underground. Left behind are nutrient-rich solids.

Several companies are trying various methods to do this:
These approaches don’t solve every problem relating to sewage, water or fertilizer. For example, the issue of latent toxics and pharmaceuticals in sewage solid waste remains, as does the potential for sewage-generated fertilizer to be applied in quantities that run off and pollute waterways.

But they make strong starts – and more importantly, encourage people to shift their thinking away from trying to solve individual problems, and toward thinking of the world as an interdependent system. Undoubtedly, new policy tools will be needed to help tap the potential of these silo-busting solutions.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Technology Can Help Solve Parking Problems

A Boston Globe investigation last week revealed two important reasons behind the city’s legendary parking woes.

The first, and the main subject of the article, is the city’s failure to manage demand for parking. There is, the Globe revealed, no limit on, nor any fee for, the number of permits a resident can get for on-street parking. One man reportedly “has residential parking permits for 10 cars, including two Ferraris, a Mercedes, and a Porsche” – a surprisingly valuable stable of vehicles to risk on the famously narrow streets of Boston.

More surprising to me, though, was this quote: “‘It's frustrating when you come home from work and have to drive . . . for an hour to find a space,’ said Ryan Kenny, who chairs the North End Waterfront Neighborhood Council’s parking committee.”

This is the second reason the article reveals underlying Boston’s parking woes: There is also a supply-management problem.

The North End is one of the most walkable and transit-accessible communities in the country, so its residents are less likely to need to drive than people who live elsewhere.

For those North Enders who do need to drive, they no doubt encounter a limited supply of parking, but that’s a feature, not a bug, of the dense development that makes the neighborhood a cherished destination for tourists and increasingly prized location for young professionals.

The city, however, is not managing the supply well. It can be done.

In nearby Dedham, changes to the parking fee structure – without adding any more spaces – have dramatically improved the situation in the town’s center.

Technological tools – analogous to those that are revolutionizing other aspects of transportation – are also available to help make parking more efficient.

In San Francisco, for example, real-time monitoring from the SFpark system allows people to see which areas of the city have parking garages with lots of available spots, as well as where on-street parking is priced at different rates.

That allows drivers to minimize the time they spend cruising for a space [PDF]. Instead, they can drive directly to a place with plenty of available parking, or know in advance they will need to spend more to secure a spot in a high-demand area.

In fact, Boston itself has made a start along this line in the South End, using similar technology, powered by the Parker app. The app not only knows where available spots are in rea time, but can give a driver turn-by-turn directions to get there.

Solving parking problems takes attention to all three aspects of the problem: limiting demand by either capping the number of permits issued to each resident, charging for permits, or some combination of both; expanding the use of technological tools to better manage the supply of spaces that do exist; and reducing individuals’ need to drive by developing transportation options that reduce the need for individuals to own (and therefore park) cars. Next week we’ll have a new report out exploring the latter issue – watch this space.