Regional Cooperation on Energy and Marine Spatial Planning in the North Sea Workshop

On Thursday 29 January, I attended the Regional Cooperation on Energy and Marine Spatial Planning in the North Sea workshop in Edinburgh. Organised by the European Commission’s Directorates for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, the aim of the workshop was to develop ideas on management of energy issues in the North Sea into the future. A wide range of people from all over Europe were in attendance, representing government, industry, academia and beyond.

I can tell from looking at my notebook that I found this a very stimulating day. Not because it’s full of ‘facts’ I’ve jotted down from the various presentations (although I did learn an awful lot), but because there are a lot of my own thoughts scribbled in there on how the concepts, ideas and opinions relate to my own work. That is, rather than just soaking things up, there was plenty that bounced off the things I’ve been thinking through in the research I’ve been involved in firstly on sub-seabed carbon dioxide storage in Europe, and more recently around marine radioactivity in Japan post-Fukushima.

Sign of a good day - plenty of messy notes

Sign of a good day – plenty of messy notes

Rather than writing up what I heard, then, I feel like firing down a few observations and opinions that came into my mind as the day progressed on the governance of energy in the marine environment. These are very rough-and-ready ideas, and with me being an academic are perhaps more of a theoretical than applied nature. I intend them to stand as reflections on the complexity of balancing a huge range of values and expectations in practice, and things that I perhaps need to keep in check in my own research.

-the first point is perhaps so obvious that it was implicit or taken for granted in the discussions, but I feel it bears repeating anyway. Issues of marine energy often do not correspond neatly to land-sea boundaries, hence when we talk about governing ‘the sea’ I believe it is vital to keep in mind coastal communities and coastal stakeholders as well as the people out moving about on or in the water. What set me thinking about this was the many rigorous and thorough maps I saw over the course of the day, which mapped out things like shared North Sea electricity grids or national marine plans but appeared to stop more or less at the point the sea met the land.

In a very practical sense, new energy infrastructure in the North Sea is likely to require similarly new infrastructure on land to facilitate it, perhaps in the form of substations, cables, pylons or even pipelines if we’re talking about storing carbon dioxide. Electricity does not get from one place to another by magic, and the infrastructure required to transport it will have to pass near to people’s homes and livelihoods, possibly in places where there hasn’t been this kind of infrastructure before and where citizens may have legitimate concerns about something unfamiliar entering the landscape.

More broadly, there is also the issue of the values coastal communities and stakeholders invest in the sea (if you are interested in reading more on this, I direct you to the work of Ruth Brennan at SAMS e.g. here, which is a touchstone for my own thinking). These place values may take the form of a sense of ownership over the sea, or might relate to a particular sense of who has the right to make decisions about management of the seas or what a fair and just way to make decision is. Relationships between humans and landscapes of this type are not easy to ‘map out’ in the way one might a shipping lane or subsea cable, yet could be a source of opposition to attempts to impose a particular form of management from on high.

I feel it is thus worth reiterating the complex and blurred relationship between the land on which humans live, and the sea adjacent to it. Identifying stakeholders relevant to marine planning thus ought to pay attention to coastal communities and coastal stakeholders, who may not physically ‘use’ the sea but may have legitimate interests in how it is governed. Speaking of stakeholders…

-my second point concerns the notion of ‘stakeholder dialogue’. The idea of engaging right across the spectrum of people with an interest in an environment in order to reach decisions amenable to all is brilliant, and I think you would really struggle to find anyone who disagreed that it was a good idea. Rather, what I wonder about is if we really know who the ‘stakeholders’ are, and if we actually agree on what ‘dialogue’ means in practice (see some of Oliver Escobar’s brilliant work on dialogue in action).

We have an expression in Scotland ‘weel kent faces’. This translates directly into English as ‘well known faces’ (readers from the Netherlands may be surprised at how closely Scots matches Dutch!), and is used to describe people who are well known in particular circles. The usual suspects, if you will. It was evident during the workshop in Edinburgh that a lot of people from different sectors knew each other through previous interactions on the topic. Good working relationships built up over a long time are a vital component of establishing the conditions of trust necessary for making the best decisions (in terms of process and outcome) on complex environmental issues – this is exactly what I saw in Fukushima with the fishers and local government researchers. At the same time, though, it is perhaps also important to take a step back and reflect on whether the ‘weel kent faces’ really do represent all the interest groups, whether there may be heterogeneity or difference within stakeholder groups, and how newly emerging stakeholders (e.g. a new NGO) might feel entering a setting where other stakeholders already enjoy good and close relations with governors.

‘Dialogue’ is an even more challenging phrase. Like stakeholder engagement, I think most folk would consider dialogue to be an intrinsically good thing (Fiorino (1990) explains why in more depth). But does everyone have the same understanding of what dialogue is or what it ought to achieve? For instance, do all the participants agree on what the range of outcomes from the dialogue are (e.g. Could it be a perfectly acceptable outcome that a particular project or plan does not go ahead after dialogue)? Does everyone agree on how long the dialogue lasts? Is there consensus on how to engage with one another? Might some stakeholders even be getting fed up of ‘dialogue’ after previous engagements that were perceived as unproductive or non-beneficial? Getting clear at the start what ‘dialogue’ means, and what the range of outcomes are, might be necessary to prevent even bigger problems later on.

-my third and final observation is a much more abstract one. Right at the start of the day’s workshop, the point was made that the North Sea is not being governed for the benefit of big corporations, but for society as a whole. To quote the eminent social science scholar Brian Wynne, though, ‘how can we even presume to know what the public is on about?‘ What I take this to mean is that it is absolutely crucial to avoid assumption about what communities are going to be concerned about with regards to governance of energy and the sea. Very often I see discussions on ‘communities’ reduced to economic benefits, job opportunities and the visual impacts of new energy infrastructure. There is sometimes little consideration to whether communities might instead be concerned with the fairness of a new development (both in terms of the decision-making process and also the distribution of risks and benefits across society and space), with the trust they invest in the developer or governing body, or indeed whether ‘the community’ itself is in internal agreement on whether a development is a good or bad thing.

The phrase ‘social licence to operate’ is really gaining momentum at the moment, and indeed I heard it mentioned over the course of the day’s discussions. But if seas are to be governed for the benefit of all society, it is important to scrutinise what society has actually given developers and governments a ‘licence’ to do, and the grounds on which this licence has been granted. As has been demonstrated with the recent Greek election result and the way British voters are diversifying away from the big two parties, publics can very easily turn round and say that things like punitive austerity measures overstep the mandate citizens have given the government – the result being the loss of votes and even civil disruption. Now I am not for one second implying this will happen around marine planning and energy, but my point is this: it is absolutely imperative to avoid making assumptions about how citizens (and indeed stakeholders) feel about energy governance, and to attempt to understand the grounds on which these feelings are based.

The above has probably done nothing to dispel the notion that social scientists can’t communicate succinctly. Reading back over it, it also sounds like I’m trying to say “society is really complex! Give me more money so I can research it more!” Rest assured that this is not what I meant. All I wanted to put across was that people’s views on energy and the sea are complex, fickle and sometimes contradictory – and that marine spatial planning needs to allow flexibility for this within its overarching goals.

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