Understanding the problem space: Part VI: Regulation

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Understanding the problem space: Part VI: Regulation

Written by Shannon Dosemagen and Elizabeth Tyson

Part VI: Environmental monitoring regulation infrastructure

Federal agencies, charged with environmental regulation, can contain an inherent conflict of interest that encourages the manipulation of information flows, administrative hold up of basic science and/or fast-tracking of incomplete science that could inform the permitting process. In a well known example, prior to the 2010 BP Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Minerals Management Service was responsible for issuing industry permits, crediting mitigation efforts, promoting industry development and ensuring safety requirements for offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. These close social relationships all built within the same organizational culture allowed for the fast-tracking of a regulatory permit for offshore drilling without the proper oversight mechanisms that ensure the data, information and science inform the decision. The result of this was the largest oil spill in history and the disentangling of permitting, regulation and safety programs from underneath one organizational roof. While it creates a larger maze that can make it difficult to contribute outside environmental information, the attempt to separate the functionalities allow for greater checks and balances on the system.


A significant amount of the environmental monitoring infrastructure in the US is set up ad-hoc after an environmental infraction has occurred and/or a law has been passed to enact environmental monitoring. The initial reason for environmental monitoring changes the outcomes from that monitoring significantly. For example, after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005, the Army Corp of engineers were incentivized to care more about the functional impact of wetlands. Because of this they implemented a state rule that accounts for the ecological value of wetlands. Unfortunately the unforeseen consequences to this rule are a decrease in environmental monitoring. This is because the more effort private industry invests in thorough environmental monitoring, the greater their financial responsibility becomes for accounting for the ecological value. This incentive misalignment requires careful scrutiny of the baseline environmental monitoring datasets produced by third-party entities contracted by private industry.  

We acknowledge there are many actors and stakeholders in this space that are actively working towards remediating these problems and if we haven’t already, we’d be interested in hearing from you. Please tweet @OpenEnviroData about your project or send us a note at info@openenvironmentaldata.org.

Next up: Part VI: The rules