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Google may have been cowed into turning down subsidies for new office buildings in a few major cities, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t up to its usual shenanigans outside of those metro areas. Out in Oregon, in fact, Google is embroiled in a controversy in which it’s gotten a town to argue that Google’s water usage should be considered a trade secret, not public information.
Due to the state’s significant use of data center subsidies, most major tech corporations have a presence in Oregon. Google recently received subsidies for two new data centers in The Dalles, a city of about 13,000 people some 80 miles outside of Portland, where it already has a massive operation. (Google acquired the land for the new centers back in 2016, begging the question of why they need to be subsidized at all since Google clearly intends to build them no matter what, but we’ll leave that aside for now.)
On Monday, Nov. 8, The Dalles’ city council will be voting on a plan for Google’s water usage at the new facilities. Neither the city council nor Google will divulge publicly how much water Google will use under this new plan, because the city councilors are bound by a non-disclosure agreement. They’ll only confirm that the city’s current capacity can’t handle it, so Google is paying for some sort of upgrade.
In fact, the city is suing a local news organization in state court on Google’s behalf in order to keep Google’s water use secret, after a district attorney ruled two weeks ago that Google’s water use should be subject to public records law. The city’s suit argues that Google’s water should be exempt from public disclosure because it is a trade secret; even if The Dalles loses, the suit will push disclosure past when the city council vote occurs, so will achieve its purpose all the same.
Now, what we know generally is that data centers use massive amounts of water, in order to prevent them from overheating. Google alone is responsible for billions of gallons of water usage across the U.S. each year— 2.3 billion gallons, to be specific, and that’s only what’s been disclosed, which most of Google’s water usage isn’t, since it fights every kind of transparency measure.
The concern voiced by critics in The Dalles is that Google will be taking some unknown amount of water in an area that is experiencing a pretty severe drought. And that’s not uncommon: As one study found, “one-fifth of data center servers’ direct water footprint comes from moderately to highly water-stressed watersheds, while nearly half of servers are fully or partially powered by power plants located within water-stressed regions.” Farmers in the area seem particularly aggrieved about not being able to find out what sort of water usage Google is planning. (Facebook is involved in a similar dispute in Mesa, Arizona.)
A logical question to ask at this point is, of course: How is the amount of water a data center uses a trade secret? I’m honestly not sure why anyone takes the claim seriously; it’s just an amount, not an explanation for how the mechanisms inside the data center work. Especially since water is a public resource, it seems a significant abuse of public records law to claim trade secret exemptions here. Other Oregon cities, for the record, have no problem disclosing how much water various corporations use, including how much Apple uses for its data centers.
As the district attorney wrote earlier in rejecting Google’s trade secret claim, “The document simply states the amount of water used by Google in The Dalles. . .Nothing about water use gives away the design or actual use of the water, just the amount. Without something more, the City fails to meet its burden to uphold its claim of exemption.”
My guess as to why Google makes this claim is it uses and wastes massive amounts of water, and also receives discounts on that water from local municipalities, which may then resort to rate hikes on other users to balance their books. A similar dynamic exists around data center energy usage, as I wrote about here, which is significant since nearly 2 percent of the electricity used in the U.S. powers data centers.
So Google demands secrecy as a condition of its investment and pliant politicians and utility officials go along with it in the name of job creation (even though data centers don’t actually create many jobs at all). In this case, that means a cynical lawsuit to push disclosure past when having the numbers out in public could affect the political debate.
Like with tax subsidies though, water and other utilities are public goods controlled by public bodies, so the public deserves to know how much is being used by corporate entities, how much they’re paying for it, and whether those deals warrant the re-election or removal of the officials who negotiated them.
I guess it boils down to my headline: Water is life, not a trade secret, and communities get to know who’s tapping into their resources.
This post initially appeared in a slightly different form on the author’s Substack, Boondoggle.
Pat Garofalo is the author of The Billionaire Boondoggle: How Our Politicians Let Corporations and Bigwigs Steal Our Money and Jobs, the Boondoggle newsletter, and the director of state and local policy at the American Economic Liberties Project.