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Data Governance Models and the Environmental Context: Part 2
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July 31, 2020
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Part two of this series examines environmental use cases and how data governance models could be employed to address transparency, the deliberative process, benefit sharing or local level data control. We briefly researched a handful of trending environmental problems and suggested where a new style of data governance could enhance the problem-solving process.

Natural Resource Commons: Fisheries management across geo-political boundaries

The Columbia Basin Partnership Task Force is a partnership between the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to manage the salmon and steelhead in the Columbia river basin which spans four states in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. Their mandate is to create a list of recommendations on how to meet the long-term goals of species recovery which influences economic and social activity along the Columbia river basin. One of the visions for the partnership is to restore the salmon and steelhead habitat, which has been declining since the 1800’s despite 50 years of restoration effort. The largest challenge set out in this shared fisheries management initiative is not a lack of data, but a lack of shared common goals across all the organizations. However the task force, required by US federal law, invites public input on their recommendations via existing public commentary systems like the Federal Register. An environmental data governance model, such as a collaborative, could explore how the feedback cycle of public comment into regional collective management decisions could be strengthened with pooled data about various management issues (catch size limits, market mechanisms, restoration efforts, species richness, water quality, etc.).

The U.S. unincorporated territory of Guam, located in the south pacific, has been under U.S. jurisdiction for the past 50 years. During this time, the Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council, based out of Hawaii, has provided oversight for Guam’s natural resources and its revenue (mainly fisheries). However, we are currently in a historic moment where the oversight is being transferred back to the local government. There are many areas where legacy scientific institutions with years of environmental trend data will need to be integrated and transferred into a local context. An  environmental data governance model, such as a data trust, could establish and prioritize the new rights and needs of the local Guam government while onboarding legacy systems that have prior federal, and perhaps not well suited data sharing and stewardship practices, for a local context.

Natural Resource Commons: Water and air management

There are multiple existing forms of public land trusts which either follow a river system or a network of public and private lands. The Delaware River Basin, a project by The Trust for Public Land, contains over 300 miles of free flowing rivers which cross three different states. The goal of the river basin trust is oversight and direction for any development projects along the river basin. It is possible to imagine a new environmental data governance structure that ensures disparate entities using the river basin have both access to accurate data about environmental quality, and further avenues for providing input on proposed development along the river basin.

Due to the COVID crisis cities across the world are now experiencing what life could be like without (or with decreased) air pollution. In Delhi, India where the Air Quality Index consistently maxes out at the top of the scale (300 is considered unhealthy, 999 is where the monitors max out), residents are now seeing daily limits of 100 due to lockdown. Considering that fourteen of the top twenty most polluted cities in the world are located in India, this shift has many researchers considering ways in which they can leverage this change for advancing cleaner air policies in regards to managing traffic and congestion. Prior to COVID it was difficult to make the case about where the majority of the sources of air pollution in Delhi came from, but after the lockdown it is easier to identify that over 70% of air pollution in Delhi is locally generated, as opposed to surrounding industry. This new knowledge calls for a stronger block level air quality monitoring system which could feed into a city-level understanding of where the problem areas are. Because a block level air quality monitoring program has the potential to identify local businesses and individuals as main sources of local pollution, privacy and stewardship concerns would need to be considered. A data collaborative, with rules for engaging with the data, could alleviate some of these concerns.

Extractive Industries: Long-term monitoring and land reclamation

The San Juan Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant with adjacent coal mine, will close its coal burning plant by 2022. Though the economic importance of the San Juan Generating Station is central to the economic landscape of this area of New Mexico, the impacts to health outweigh economic benefit. There is a proposal currently in review to transform the facility into a carbon capture and sequestration facility jointly owned by Enchant Energy and the City of Farmington, New Mexico, which would operate into 2035. Carbon capture and sequestration is a controversial and still unproven method. Though it would provide regional economic relief, slating a relatively new model of energy capture (predicted to be the largest facility carrying out this activity in the world) will need substantial monitoring at many levels. Along with state and federal guidance on environmental assessment, leveraging the a new data governance model, such as that of a data collaborative, towards the shared goal of a decade-plus monitoring of the retrofitted facility could be a way in which a multivalent set of interests-- scientists who want to understand more about carbon capture and sequestration, residents concerned about public health, policy makers who need to learn more about the economic risks and benefits of this model-- could be measured in concert.

If the facility is not repurposed into a carbon capture and sequestration facility, in 2022 the facility would enter a period of post-closure in which decontamination and reclamation would be argued for (rather than simply shutting down operations and fencing the old facility). A data governance model, such as a trust, with the optimal goal of land remediation could provide for the long term, multiple stakeholder governance of decisions made during the reclamation period.

Extractive industries: Environmental Impact Assessments and commentary

Near Iliamna, Alaska a site called “Pebble Mine'' boasts a billion dollars surplus of valuable metals. The development of this mine was blocked during the Obama Administration, but recently received approval from the Trump Administration after a (contested), Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was completed which indicated that “under normal circumstances” there would be no significant environmental detriment or affect on fishing, the other significant economic activity of the region. However, the mine site development will construct holding ponds that have the potential to leach, and two pipelines, which have the potential to leak, one to carry concentrate and one to carry natural gas which will power the mining operations. Though some community members and groups see the economic benefit of the mine, public commentary on the EIS demonstrated that there is a significant level of community concern about the potential for waterway contamination and thus danger to the local (Bristol Bay) fishery, a major source of regional economic livelihood.

If the mining project continues to move forward, there are several opportunities for use of an environmental data governance model, such as a collaborative, to form. The first is to meet the rapid environmental monitoring requirements laid out in an Environmental Impact Assessment. An environmental data collaborative could be a community-formed response and place of input in the monitoring process, with a governance structure that ensures fair representation of community-level datasets around multiple environmental parameters. The second opportunity is the potential for ongoing assessment to trigger public commentary periods in which case a data collective could be used as a consolidating force to ensure distributed and representative public witness to impacts that might arise from mining activities.

Climate change: Economic management

New Orleans is increasingly experiencing local urban flooding, not just during tropical storms and hurricanes, but because of the increasing daily effects of climate change. New Orleans is the perfect storm -- a city originally built barely above sea level, with poor drainage and pumping systems, sinking marshy land, and faced with rapidly rising sea levels. On a normal, yet increasingly intense, stormy afternoon in New Orleans, receiving a City of New Orleans “Nola Ready” alert that residents can park their cars on the higher up neutral ground (boulevards) to avoid vehicle flooding, is now normal. In 2016, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) rezoned half the population of the urban area out of “high-risk” flood zones, effectively loosening requirements on who was and was not required to have flood insurance. Though it may at face value seem an economic benefit to residents to not be required to have flood insurance, it creates an incredibly vulnerable situation in which residents, especially those in high-risk flood zones (which did not actually change in 2016, just the maps did) are not insured for anything from daily storm events to severe hurricanes.

Using a data governance model, such as a trust, in which residents provide pooled information about block level flooding, that is controlled, managed and governed by residents could support residents to be engaged stakeholders in rezoning, advocating for infrastructural improvements and demonstrate the additional protections that are needed by city residents including advocating for resource distribution under the National Flood Insurance Program. Controlling for access to information in this case would be necessary as this type of data could also lead to property devaluation, increased insurance rates and economic disincentives if mishandled.

Climate change: Adaptation

Water in the United States is generalized under "eastern" (East of Texas and minus Mississippi) and "western" states. Eastern states manage water under riparian law in which, if your property abuts a body of water, you are able to use that water. However, in western states water law follows prior appropriation. To note, tribal rights to water have additional layers of governance and recognition defined by different determinations such as under Winters v. United States and Arizona v. California. Though prior appropriation is used differently state by state, the premise applies “beneficial use” prompting people with priority water rights to use amounts of water that don’t always reflect their actual need, or risk losing the water that is apportioned to them. In Colorado, water laws, which don’t reflect watershed and ecosystem health (especially in neighboring states) coupled with the encroaching effects of climate change and drought, have led to the increasing water shortage in the west.

Though many agree that the prior appropriation approach to water management is antiquated, for rights holders to maintain those rights, they have to buy into the “use it or lose it” system that dominates the Colorado River basin. In joint regional recognition of water insecurity and deprivation, a data governance structure like a collective could support the creation of a rights holder, municipal, state and regional tracking system. In this system, pooled data on water use could be used to advocate for revisions to water law in favor of collective action and management of water resources over individual rights.

Climate change:  Mitigation and raw materials for renewable energy infrastructure

One of the key strategies for mitigating the effects of climate change are efforts towards decoupling fossil fuels from energy expenditure. Decoupling our world economy from fossil fuel use requires huge investment and growth in alternative sources of energy and the infrastructure to provide that energy. One area for decoupling the transportation industry is the rise of electric vehicles. The batteries that run electric cars require lithium, which has kicked off a lithium mining boom in places like Australia, Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. Lithium mining is a freshwater intensive activity and the majority of lithium deposits are found in dry and arid landscapes. It is a highly geo politicized debate about who will profit from this extraction method. There is a novel opportunity to establish a data trust that ensures benefits tracking to original lithium sources, particularly the lithium mining found on or adjacent to indigenous land.