10 ways you can use open records to investigate environmental stories

Today is Blog Action Day. Over 8,500 bloggers have promised to do a post today that relates in some way to the environment.

Our contribution is a list:

10 ways you can use open records to investigate environmental issues.

Since we focus on state and local FOIA, we’re going to focus on environmental concerns at the state and municipal level. We know that some of our readers think the government should do more to protect the environment and some of our readers don’t see the need for that.

However, each set of readers needs to know what, exactly, a local unit of government IS doing about the environment before they know whether by their lights it is too much, too little or just right. And that’s where open records comes in.

So, here’s a list of 10 open records requests you could file with a state agency, a city or county government, or a school district.


The first tip is: start a blog. The story you uncover might be terrific but “small”. Blogs are great places to tell stories that can’t quite compete for space in the newspapers, but where the audience for your story can find it.


Is there a municipal golf course near you? What fertilizers and pesticides does it use? How much does it pay for irrigation? Send a FOIA request to the government agency that oversees the golf course and ask for those records. Ask for the records for 2-3 years to see if you can identify a trend.


One of the more controversial stories of the year was when the Tennessee Center for Policy Research sent out a press release about Al Gore’s energy consumption at his home near Nashville. They were able to legally obtain this information because in Tennessee, utility bills for anyone are a matter of public record. Whatever the law in your state about utility bills as public documents, there are bound to be some well-known buildings that are owned by a government agency.

In Wisconsin, the Governor’s Mansion:


is publicly owned. You can file a FOIA with the agency that takes care of a publicly owned building, asking to see the utility bills, even if private utility bills are not available in your state.


When you went to school for parent’s night, did you see any light bulbs that look like this?

If not, are you wondering when you ever will see any lightbulbs that look like that, at school or in the city or county offices? File a FOIA and ask for a copy of their energy management policy. (Of course, you might find out that they don’t have an energy management policy…which is a story in its own right.)


Do you ever wonder whether your local government is in the hip pocket of developers? File a FOIA with city or county politicians, asking to see their e-mail lists, or asking to see any and all e-mails they’ve received in the last month. This helps you understand who is communicating what to your elected officials.



You probably installed one of these at home years ago. Can the same be said of the local government buildings? How much did it cost and what impact has it had on energy use? File a FOIA to find out.


By any chance, is your city planning to invest large sums of money in a new coal plant? Start filing FOIAs. Questions to ask: Can I see a copy of a feasibility study? A contract?


131 blog posts later, one blogger is still asking.


As cities, counties and states come under increasing pressure to reduce greenhouse emissions, consultants will emerge to advise them. Who are these consultants? How much are they paid?  Do they have an agenda?  What is it? Are they working on a no-bid model because your local government wasn’t aware of any alternatives? File a FOIA.


Does your city follow a fair permitting process? Do they abide by it? You can find out. Just file an open records request.


Does your city or county have a policy on carbon emissions? (If you don’t know, by now you know one way to find out.) If they do have a policy, they have to have a way to track how things are going. You’d want to know what that method is, wouldn’t you?

That’s it. 10 ways you can use open records to investigate environmental stories.

Update: Chris Joyner has more ideas.

Og-Blog and pipelines.


2 responses to “10 ways you can use open records to investigate environmental stories

  1. Eleven

    After years of inaction, Congress finally has a chance to pass meaningful energy legislation. The bill they are about to pass includes the best fuel economy standards ever (35 mpg by 2020) and a renewable electricity standard (15% by 2020) that guarantees the growth of renewable, clean energy. But there is a chance these two key advances won’t make it through to the final bill.

    I am working with a coalition to make sure Congress sends the president a strong energy bill with meaningful changes for our environment and planet. This legislation would be a monumental step toward stopping global warming. Go to http://www.energybill2007.org and sign the petition. This is our chance for real progress, don’t let Congress back down!

  2. Pingback: The Friday Follow-a-FOIA Series. « State Sunshine and Open Records

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