The recordkeeping of energy infrastructure

Natural gas pipeline capacity out of Ohio

When people think of the energy industry, they often picture heavy industrial equipment – pipelines criss-crossing prairies, oil rigs along coastlines, or earthmovers pushing mountaintop overburden into valleys below. But what about the invisible equipment? How do we visualize the caverns that store nuclear energy production waste? How do we know where the underground  piping is that connects us to the grid? How can we tell when there are wells nearby?

We cannot see invisible infrastructure, and even visible infrastructure blends into the background of our daily lives. But we can see the outlines of all infrastructure by inspecting the records associated with it. Some recordkeeping associated with the energy industry’s infrastructure is available to the public – permits that must be filed with state and federal agencies, for example. Other recordkeeping conducted for internal corporate administration is considered private business information. Some business information may be shared with the public if an energy company is a public company, but other forms of information may be proprietary.

One of the fastest growing sectors of domestic energy production is hydraulic fracturing of shale formations, better known as fracking. Ohio is located in a major shale formation and is the 7th largest producer of natural gas. According to the Energy Information Agency, “[t]he Utica Shale has contributed to the rapid increase in natural gas production in Ohio, which was almost 19 times greater in 2016 than 2011.” Ohio’s neighbors of West Virginia and Pennsylvania are part of the Utica and Marcellus Shale formations, and also rank highly for natural gas production (Pennsylvania is the #2 domestic producer, West Virginia is #8).

Most oil and gas activities are regulated at the state-level, and therefore different states have varying regulations around fracking. As a result, the impacts from fracking are experienced differently depending on where you live. Since there is a different regulatory landscape from state to state, this means that the information and records concerning fracking vary across state lines. To put it another way, this means that the public has different levels of information about fracking depending on where it’s carried out.

An illuminating example can be found with disclosure of chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing. Many states use the registry FracFocus for chemical disclosure. However, a recent study of FracFocus showed that 92% of submitted chemical disclosures for wells “withheld at least one ingredient record” by classifying it as a trade secret, confidential or proprietary business information (Konschnik and Dayalu, 2016, p. 508).

This issue will almost certainly continue to be of regional importance for both industry and concerned citizens. Ohio and Pennsylvania increased their production of natural gas more than any other states between 2015-2016, and the Energy Information Agency “projects that natural gas production will increase in both 2017 and 2018 as natural gas prices rise.” As the federal government and many states continue to embrace domestic fossil-fuel production over renewable energy, this is a topic that deserves our attention.

What’s in the water?

Ohio River headwaters in Pittsburgh
Formation of the Ohio River in Pittsburgh by the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. Photograph taken by Eira Tansey, October 2017.

What’s in the water?

Ohio’s status as a “water-rich state” has meant that it has long been a flashpoint for concerns over how to ensure protection of our water resources, particularly as Ohio’s waterways have played a significant part in regional industry. One of the most famous images of the environmental movement was Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River catching on fire in 1969 – it was not the first time, as it had caught on fire several times before, going back to the mid-1800s. If you want to learn more about the political atmosphere of Cleveland during this event, UC history professor (and friend of the Archives and Rare Books Library) David Stradling has written a book about it.

One of the landmark federal laws that was placed under authority of the newly established EPA was the 1972 Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act actually traced its origins to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, and was the result of many amendments to the 1948 law. The Clean Water Act requires significant recordkeeping and information systems in order to support implementation of the law. Much of the Clean Water Act’s powers are delegated to state environmental protection agencies (for example, Ohio’s Environmental Protection Agency, or Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection). One of the major parts of the Clean Water Act is a permitting system known as the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). The NPDES system “regulates discharges of pollutants from municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants, sewer collection systems, and stormwater discharges from industrial facilities and municipalities.”

As a system of bureaucratic recordkeeping, the NPDES system reveals much about how we have attempted to take hard-to-quantify aspects of our environment, and pack it down into standardized documentation about human impact.

For example, reviewing a recent draft permit for a wastewater facility in the greater Cincinnati area, this permit will last for five years. It requires the wastewater facility to self-report sampling levels of their discharges to one of the tributaries of the Ohio River. Sampling must take place Monday through Friday but the time of day doesn’t have to be reported, and the permit holder must retain records for three years. One can imagine arguing for modifying any of these recordkeeping requirements upwards or downwards, based on your orientation towards deregulation or to environmental protection.

Recordkeeping is not a neutral act. What is reported and recorded reflects information necessary for regulatory fulfillment. Choices about recordkeeping – what to record, when to record it, who should record it, how often to record it, where to store it, and public vs proprietary access, reflect competing values attached to environmental information.