OSINT for environmental investigations

Conversations with Data: #103

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Welcome back to our latest Conversations with Data newsletter!

Investigating the hidden corners of the climate crisis is no small feat. Exposing environmental crimes or wrongdoing requires data skills and open source intelligence (OSINT) to cover evidence-based investigative stories about climate change. So, what does it take to uncover the invisible with a forensic approach? What are the best sources to track this environmental wrongdoing and corruption?

To gain answers to these questions, we spoke with Sam Leon, co-founder of DataDesk, and Ben Heubl, an investigative reporter with Süddeutsche Zeitung. Listen to the podcast on Spotify, SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.

Alternatively, read the edited Q&A with Sam Leon and Ben Heubl below.

What we asked

Tell us about you and your work.

Sam:  I'm Sam Leon and I started Data Desk with Louis Goddard. Data Desk is a research consultancy where we provide insights and analysis on the commodities at the heart of the climate crisis, primarily oil, gas and coal, but also carbon, forest risk, and agricultural commodities like soy and palm. We work extensively with journalists and climate think tanks, providing insights on supply chains. We're both programmers and I conduct open source investigations. Our research tends to combine a degree of automation with the aim of illuminating the hidden corners of our energy system. Prior to this, I set up a digital investigations team at Global Witness, where I worked for seven years.

Ben: My name is Ben Heubl and I work for Süddeutsche Zeitung's investigative team. I currently do open source intelligence, but my background is in computer-assisted reporting or data journalism. I started my career in journalism in 2014 and I got into investigative journalism by conducting complex data investigations.

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Sam, You worked on an investigation with Le Monde and Global Witness investigating TotalEnergies' connection to military jet fuel supply chains in Russia. Tell us more about this investigation.

Sam: The story was published in Le Monde about a year ago. I worked on it while at Global Witness, leading a team investigating Russian fossil fuels. Essentially, we found a gas project owned by TotalEnergies was linked to a supply chain that was providing feedstock to a Gazprom-owned refinery that was producing jet fuel for the Russian military, including to airbases where Russian military jets were used to bomb Ukraine.

This story was made up of three components. There was rail freight data that, at that time, was being provided via some commercial quantity platforms. There was satellite imagery to verify the presence of specific kinds of jets at airbases, and there were datasets of Russian military airbases. It was a question of connecting where we knew Western joint ventures were producing this feedstock of gas condensate and how that was then moving via rail primarily to refineries producing the jet fuel. Making those links and establishing which European companies were connected to those supply chains, and TotalEnergies was one of them. This was happening in the wake of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It was particularly significant and potentially very damaging for the company in the wake of this investigation.

What was the impact of this investigation?

Sam: Not long after the story was published, TotalEnergies did divest from the gas field in question. They sold it; they denied that any of their gas condensate produced from the project was going into military jet fuel. But what's been particularly pleasing about this investigation is that it enabled other European journalists to scrutinise the fuel supply chains in Russia of other European oil and gas companies.

For instance, in Germany, our friends at Paper Trail Media and DER SPIEGEL replicated our approach to find links between Wintershall Dea operations in Russia and the military fuel supply chain. We were transparent and worked with our colleagues at the Anti-Corruption Data Collective to share this Russian rail freight data more widely. This meant other groups could take forward the methodology and find other interesting stories.

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Ben, You conducted an investigation examining how lithium firms in Chile are depleting water supplies with a cheap mining technique compromising the country's environment. Tell us about the investigation.

Ben: The topic of rare earth metals comes back to the very question of how fast and adoptive can we grow the green industry of clean technology. That includes everything from electric vehicles to wind turbines and anything that powers the green economy. We need to ask if this is harming other people. We saw a similar phenomenon with the Industrial Revolution, where it was not good for everyone, although it was perceived as such by the few who got rich from it. Lithium has to come from somewhere and then is put into battery production for renewable technology. This is the same for cobalt and other rare earth materials. If you have to mine so much of it, somebody is probably suffering from it.

With leaked documents and satellite imagery, our analysis at E&T revealed that the lithium mining techniques of open brine pools were wasting a lot of water. This unsustainable extraction method is not ideal, given Chile is one of the driest places in the world. We worked with SpaceKnow to analyse the satellite imagery, which showed how drastically the mining grew over a few years. Water is being taken from local societies and people who need it more. This is an investigation that could be replicated in other parts of the world that use the same method to extract lithium.

What one data source do you rely on regularly for your environmental investigations? 

Sam: I like to use Sentinel Hub's EO Browser. It allows you to visualise satellite data from numerous satellites and data collections.

Ben: Regarding geospatial data in my investigative work, I often begin with Google Earth Pro.

How do you develop an OSINT mindset for environmental investigations?

Sam: When examining environmental wrongdoing, the aim is to put a magnifying glass on a particular set of trades. For instance, maybe focus on where there's fraud, leaks or spills associated with something that may have been unreported. Or maybe a company is making claims about a new carbon capture project they've built where the rate of capturing carbon doesn't add up. These are the types of scenarios where OSINT comes into play. There's no oven-ready data set that you can allow you to illustrate this. So, that is where you need to get creative. OSINT is constantly changing. You're using alternative data sources that go beyond what they disclose.


What other organisations do you look up to or follow in this space?

Sam: I'm a fan of Lighthouse Reports and its work on pesticides and food systems. I also follow The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, particularly for its work on the international oil trade. Bloomberg Green does some excellent reporting in this space as well.

Finally, what kind of stories would you like to see more of when covering climate change?

Sam: I think we're at a pretty dangerous time. It's imperative to act right now to accelerate the transition as much as possible, to divert the worst effects of climate change. A huge amount of money is going into data collection and I think it's incumbent upon us to make use of this data and incorporate it or see what story is in that. Otherwise, it's just sitting on a shelf. 

Ben: I'd really like to see more environmental stories full-stop.  We also have to be better at giving more space to explaining how we got to the results in our investigations. I'd also like to see more journalists do an environmental investigations from countries that are most affected by climate change, corruption or illegal mining efforts. I don't want to just read such stories by Western journalists at The Guardian or The Washington Post. I want to see these excellent investigations done by local news outlets. More local journalism using open source intelligence by partnering with Western journalists could be a way forward.

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Tara from the EJC data team,

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