Open, Accountable Government
E-Gov Spotlight: EPA's Climate Change Tool
by Sofia Plagakis, 9/10/2013
E-Gov Spotlights: Given the importance of websites and online tools to inform the public about major issues and government activities, the Center for Effective Government is launching an ongoing series of articles to evaluate government's use of online technology. Each article will explore the purpose of an agency's site or tool, its strengths and weaknesses, and offer recommendations on how their efforts might be enhanced.
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Climate change has become the largest environmental concern in decades, and transparency and accountability will be critical in providing an effective response to combating it. As we move forward in making new policies related to climate change, it is critical that the public be well informed about the issue. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has an online tool offering users a means to explore the sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
EPA's Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program
The EPA recently released greenhouse gas emissions data in a publicly accessible web-based tool called FLIGHT (or Facility Level Information on GreenHouse gases Tool). The data comes from an EPA database of greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide) produced by more than 8,000 industrial facilities, such as power plants and oil refineries.
In 2008, Congress instructed the EPA to begin collecting greenhouse gas emissions data, and last year, the agency released initial data for 2010 for 29 source categories. Earlier this year, EPA released 2011 greenhouse gas data and included an additional 12 source categories, for a total of 41 emissions sources produced by facilities in nine major industries, including the oil and gas industry.
Using the Online Tool
The tool gives an individual the ability to easily search data on greenhouse gases in his or her own community and around the country. Citizen activists may use this information for their own purposes, to raise awareness of the risks of emissions in their communities, or to advocate for changes in policies and practices that would significantly reduce emissions. Researchers will be able to use the data to analyze sources of greenhouse gas pollution in different areas of the country, to compare facility and industry performance, and to (eventually) track trends.
Companies can use the data to compare their performance against others in their sector and/or to set a baseline for their own reductions in carbon pollution – and save money in the process. State and local officials may use the data to compare the effectiveness of their policies and practices with those operating in other parts of the country.
The EPA tool offers various options for searching and viewing the data. For instance, the user can search for facilities in a certain state or choose a specific location or facility. The user can filter in only facilities in the state from specific industry sectors like power plants, refineries, chemicals, other industrial, landfills, metals, minerals, pulp and paper, and government and commercial, or the type of gas emitted (e.g., carbon dioxide). The data reveal general information like the number of facilities in a certain state and/or location, to specifics like the amount of methane emitted by a particular facility.
Data can be viewed on maps of the nation, specific states, or even counties. Highlighted blue circles denote the number of facilities reporting in each location. Users can also view data on lists (i.e., data tables), bar and pie charts, and tree maps. Viewing the data in tables (rather than on the maps or charts) allows users to rank the data by facilities or industries that produce the most pollution. The tool allows users to download data in Excel files, which can be used to conduct further analysis and includes data on parent companies.
A resident in California might want to use this tool to determine which companies or sectors in the state contribute the most to climate change. After he or she selects California, the map and data immediately inform the user that power plants emit the majority of greenhouse gas emissions in the state (37 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent came from 157 power plants in 2011). A comparison of 2010 and 2011 greenhouse gas data show that California power plants reduced their emissions by 8 million metric tons – a 17 percent drop in a year.
Users would also see that the state's 19 refineries (one more refinery than in the previous year) released about 26 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Clicking on the list button just above the map shows all of the facilities in the state. After re-sorting to show facilities ranked by emission levels in 2011, the user can see that nine of the top 10 polluting facilities in California are refineries (in 2010, eight of the top facilities were refineries). Such findings provide potent evidence to residents committed to further reducing greenhouse gas emissions in California.
The site also allows users to zoom into their hometowns and locate the greenhouse gas emitting facilities closest to them. For example, residents in Hacienda Heights, CA (near Los Angeles), will find a lead production facility and two landfills produce the most greenhouse gases.
The tool is fairly intuitive and its interface is easily explored and understood. The site conveys major findings, such as which industries and facilities are the biggest source of greenhouse gases, quickly and easily. It also provides many ways to portray the data, which allows users to find the presentation that best explains and conveys information to them.
It is also helpful that users can easily search for facilities either by the location or sectors – making the search as specific or as general as the user wishes. And as mentioned previously, the tool allows researchers to aggregate the data by downloading data in Excel files, which allows further analysis. The data on parent companies is an especially welcome addition because it allows the public to aggregate the emissions and understand each corporation's full contribution to climate change.
One shortcoming of the data is that it only reports emissions from facilities that annually produce at least 25,000 tons of greenhouse gases – the equivalent of the carbon dioxide released from burning 131 rail cars of coal. The data also excludes emissions from transportation and agricultural facilities. Requiring facilities emitting less than 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide to also report their emissions, and adding the agricultural and transportation industries, would improve the tool. Even with these exemptions, the greenhouse gas reporting program covers an estimated 85 to 90 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
Another shortcoming, which the agency could easily fix, is that specific emissions and chemical data is not easily understood by non-experts. An average person might have a hard time understanding the terminology. EPA provides a glossary in a site separate from the tool, and finding it is difficult and requires multiple clicks to get an explanation of a singular term.
In addition, the information provided by the site's default map is very limited. While the map displays the number and location of facilities in each area, it does not graphically display data on the emissions. Instead, the site lists emission totals in a table displayed below the map or in pop-up windows for each facility. Given that the site uses a map interface, this is a missed opportunity to give people a faster, better understanding of emission levels in different areas.
We also encountered several problems when shifting to different views on the site. The map view can lose the "zoomed-in" focus once a user clicks on a facility. The site often crashed when we changed between data views when looking at more than 3,000 facilities at a time.
Lastly, the tool lacks any direct way to provide feedback about the website or the information available. Users can click through to a separate support site that provides contact information for feedback, but it is not easy to find.
EPA's greenhouse gas tool strives to give the public, companies, and policymakers a better understanding of the current sources of greenhouse gas emissions in communities around the country. Simply reporting on pollution is powerful; this information can foster public awareness and encourage either private action by polluting firms or public action by officials in affected regions. A successful case in point: by requiring companies to report the toxins they release, the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), a national database of toxic pollution, prompted the private sector to reduce toxic emissions by more than half in less than 30 years. This new online tool has the potential to achieve similar results in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
However, the site needs several improvements to maximize its impact on the public discourse occurring around climate change. At the very least, the site should give users a better frame of reference for evaluating emission levels near them. By including state and/or industry facility averages, users can compare the performance of local plants or storage facilities with others. In doing so, the government can fully provide the transparency needed to jumpstart a productive conversation about an array of solutions designed to have a real impact on reducing the United States' contribution to climate change.