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Borrowing Bay Water in Alameda

A waterfront server farm cooled by the bay would be environmentally less impactful than one cooled via air conditioning. Or would it?

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Like the Sierra Club, Baykeeper sent a letter to the city of Alameda cautioning it about the proposed data center. Aside from the environment impacts it believes might follow construction of the data center and its cooling system, Baykeeper worried that Nautilus Data Technologies' use of bay water could set a precedent for others to mimic elsewhere.

Nautilus employs a similar server farm in Stockton that uses Sacramento River Delta water to cool servers that rest on a river barge. The Stockton project, however, had fewer environmental concerns since the rapid movement of river water more quickly dissipates heat increases from the server farm. By contrast, the movement of water near Alameda Point is languid.

Baykeeper's Rosenfield also is troubled by the locations at which water would flow into and out of the company's cooling system, one of which is near a harbor seal pullout. The company says it would mitigate the aquatic impact of the swift inflows with its patent-pending screening technology. But Rosenfield said even the best screening technology is not fool-proof, and creating a gathering point for fish is likely to have unintended consequences.

"When the water comes in, fish and the things fish eat — fish eggs, fish larvae, baby fish — are going to get entrained," Rosenfield said. "And they will say, I'm sure, 'We have the best available screening technology,' but they can't be effective against things that don't swim."

In addition, the mouth of any underwater pipe is typically a place where predators will learn to congregate. "It's a structure," he said. "It allows them to hide and pick off fish when they are impinged on that screen."

Meanwhile, he added, important questions need to be asked about the current coming from the outflow. "What is it headed toward? What kind of current is it creating? Is it right next to an eelgrass bed or a herring-spawning ground or a place where dungeness crab hang out? We don't know. We haven't looked, but that's why we're asking people to look to it."

Even if aquatic life is not currently found at the locations of the inflow and outflow, Rosenfield said the state of the bay is not static. "The bay is a changing environment. Do we know they won't be there in the future? We have sea-level rise. We have climate-change. Maybe that becomes a habitat or unusable."

Rosenfield said the cooling technology being proposed is passe and already banned by the state for use by power plants. "I was shocked when I heard about it," he said. "That's a 1950s solution to cooling of a hot place. It's antiquated and on it's way out in most applications because it is not as simple as borrowing the water, it's modifying the water quality in a significant way and we can do a lot better." A more elegant solution, he argued, would be to convert the waste heat to electricity, such as some European countries have done.

Nautilus will have to navigate nearly a dozen local and state regulatory bodies before it can open for business. It's a task that Rosenfield would be surprised that they can accomplish. "It would be odd for the state to allow a different kind of facility to use the same old technology." However, Connaughton said the most compelling reason for the city to approve a conditional lease for the property is to allow the company to begin the process for local and state environmental approval of the project.

Yet Oddie and other environmentalists who are aware of Connaughton's service in the Bush administration find it difficult to give him the benefit of the doubt. As a key member of the President George W. Bush's administration, Connaugton spearheaded repeated attempts to undermine the environmental movement, implementing lax regulations written by the fossil fuel industry, and fostering the type of climate-change denial rhetoric that is now ubiquitous among conservatives.

As head of the White House Council of Environmental Quality, Connaughton gained great power over environmental and energy policy after Vice President Dick Cheney essentially folded the office into his own orbit. Connaugton steered efforts forcing the EPA to understate the air quality around the World Trade Center after 9/11 and asserted it was safe to breathe. He led the office during an era when the U.S. pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, a 1992 international treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

By the end of Connaugton's eight years in the Bush administration, his office's stance against recognizing the growing effects of climate change remained constant. In several cases, at the behest of the administration, Connaughton questioned whether there was sufficient data for scientists to establish a threshold for when greenhouse gas levels would begin to critically affect the environment. Connaughton and his council also came under fire after the office was found to have selectively edited and, in some cases, censored the severity of climate change in government reports.

Prior to his work in the White House, Connaughton was a corporate environmental attorney who represented Superfund polluters, such as General Electric, ARCO, and Alcoa, among others. He also has experience with environmental regulatory agencies in California.

"This guy really personifies the Bush era, with its fetid mix of mendacity, ideology, and incompetence," the environmental website Grist wrote following a widely-panned appearance by Connaughton before a senate committee in 2007. "No doubt he'll be back in a cushy lobbying job before Bush's boxes are even cleared out of the White House."

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