Energy and the sea – a busy week

A lot of last week was spent sitting in seminar rooms – first in Brussels for the CCS ‘Super Tuesday’ (my term, not used by anyone else!) and then in Edinburgh for the Forth Estuary Forum Annual Conference.

Firstly, the CCS double-header in Brussels. The morning of 26 November saw the 2013 General Assembly of the Zero Emissions Platform, which took the form of a public hearing in the European Parliament. As always, I was listening out for any mention of public perception and social ‘acceptance’ whilst trying to get my head round the high-level policy stuff. I was not to be disappointed. Nearly all of the key speakers raised the issue of public support for CCS, their ideas coalescing around the idea that (a) there is a need to get ‘better’ information out there explaining the need for CCS, (b) publics can be very hostile to something new – and, indeed, are perfectly entitled to have concerns, and (c) that the public perception issues seen with capture, transport and storage are not unique to CCS.

European Parliament in Brussels - a whole ethnographic study in itself!
European Parliament in Brussels – a whole ethnographic study in itself!

I was pleased to see public perceptions given such prominence in a high-level meeting, nonetheless there were a couple of things that irked me a little. One is the perceived ‘need’ for the energy sector to talk to ‘the public’ about why CCS is necessary. This was raised several times without so much of a mention (at least not before I left) of how to gain trust from citizens who are seeing their gas and electricity bills soaring and often perceive the energy companies as profiting directly from this. The other is the ongoing idea that offshore CCS is somehow going to be ‘easier’ in terms of avoiding public perception issues…

…which led nicely into my presentation at the lunchtime briefing. The EU FP7-funded ECO2 project, on which I work some of the time in the public perceptions work package, was hosting a briefing in the parliament building on the topic of legal, regulatory and social implications of offshore CCS. Following fascinating presentations from Sharnie Finnerty of DNV on risk, Daiju Narita of Kiel Institute for the World Economy on the economics of offshore CCS, Alexander Proelß of University of Trier on the legal landsacpe of CO2 storage, and my colleague Samuela Vercelli of La Sapienza on public perceptions of CCS, it was my turn. Rather riled and fired-up by the morning session, I presented the findings of a paper my colleagues and I have just had accepted into Marine Policy – the key point of which is that whilst there is no clear opposition to offshore CCS at present, developers and policy-makers must not get complacent in this regard.

Through happy coincidence, it turned out that Alexander Proelß’s presentation shared many synergies with my paper – namely, highlighting the ambiguities and contradictions in existing sub-seabed CO2 storage legislation (OSPAR, EU Storage Directive, London Protocol) and pointing out areas that may be in need of review as CCS progresses. As always, the question and answer session demonstrated the wonder of energy social science – namely, that everyone no matter what their specialisation or background is able to comment on issues of public perception. A lively and stimulating discussion followed, encompassing issues such as broadening the rationale for CCS beyond climate change mitigation, how to engage with local policy-makers and NGOs, and how to provide adequate storage monitoring in offshore environments.

Thanks must go to Alyn Smith MEP and his team for hosting us, Jan-Stefan Fritz and Kristin Hamman of KDM for bringing the meeting together, and to everyone that turned up to hear us. It is really exciting to be getting to the stage with ECO2 where we have ideas and arguments ready that we want to start putting out there.

Thursday then saw me back on more familiar territory, in the National Museum of Scotland for the Forth Estuary Forum’s Annual Conference. The theme of this year’s conference was energy – not only sea-based energy, but also energy on the land around the Forth. Legendary history professor Chris Smout gave the introductory talk on the history of energy in the Forth, a lecture both fascinating and thought-provoking in equal measure. Prof Smout reminded us that it is really only since the 1950s that the Forth has turned its back on ‘renewable’ energy sources (e.g. horses, sails, water mills), and that the lavish use of energy goes hand-in-hand with conspicuous and perhaps unsustainable consumption. More technical talks followed on the engineering, policy and legal dimensions of energy in the Forth, within which were some amazing morsels such as that ‘fracking’ has been taking place in Scotland since 1994, that the Seagreen Phase 1 offshore wind project covers an area the size of Greater Glasgow, and that grey seals tracked to understand potential impacts on marine populations traveled as far as Norway and Holland from Scotland.

It was as if the Forth Estuary Forum session had been placed to help reinforce the thoughts that were still swirling round in my mind after Tuesday’s Brussels session. The question and answer session featured many questions from stakeholders and informed publics for the offshore renewables developers about subsidies for wind energy and the permanence of turbines. Some of these wind farms are tens of kilometers offshore, and barely (if at all) visible from the coast, and yet they were the subject of considerable interest, curiosity and debate. This to me illustrates perfectly why so much care has to be taken when claiming that offshore energy will encounter ‘less’ social opposition – we’re not just talking about visual impacts and NIMBYism here, but much bigger questions of how public funds are used, what the effects on non-humans are, and what the legacy will be for future generations.

Likewise, there were also references to the continued role for fossil fuels in a ‘low-carbon energy’ future through new gas power stations and more radical measures like underground coal gasification. Again, the bones of contention here don’t seem to be the technical risks alone, but also bigger issues such as whether local communities and their immediate representatives can really get involved in decision-making processes, and whether the continuation of fossil fuel use is an appropriate energy trajectory for the Forth area to follow. Plus, in the exchanges that followed there were different interpretations of the underlying science and assessments of risk thrown in for good measure.

All in all, a busy week that hammered home not only the centrality of social dimensions to energy deployment, but also the complex and contingent nature of these social aspects. The good news for me is that there is plenty more research to be done, and plenty more case studies to be examined yet!


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