Initial reflections on Tomakomai fieldwork

At 5.30am last Sunday I dragged my luggage – all 32 kilos of it – across Tomakomai and onto the train bound for New Chitose Airport. Two things in that tell you a lot about the kind of place Tomakomai is. One is that it took half an hour to get to the station from the hotel – Tomakomai is a big place with a good number of people living in it. The second is that to have a fighting chance of making my 9.30am flight I had to get up at 4.45am to reach an airport barely 25km up the road. So irregular are the Hokkaido trains that I thought I was back in Scotland.

View from Tomakomai City Hall towards the refinery, CO2 capture plant and storage site
View from Tomakomai City Hall towards the refinery, CO2 capture plant and storage site

For the past three weeks I have been carrying out fieldwork in Tomakomai, which as frequent readers of my posts will know is the site for Japan’s first large-scale carbon dioxide capture and storage demonstration. I’ve been interviewing key stakeholders in the town, as well as talking to people from elsewhere in Hokkaido to get a sense of the prefecture’s past, present and future energy and climate outlook. I’ve been visiting the town library to learn about the history of industrial development in Tomakomai and its effects on society. And I’ve been trying out some more ethnographic photo- and walking-based methods to get a better sense of what it means to live in the midst of industry (but we’re not going to go into those today). For part of my research I was also joined by Dr Jun Kita from my host institute RITE – Jun is a marine biologist by training, but to promote interchange across disciplines he was able to join me to see how social science data is collected in action.

The rather startling thing about CO2 storage in Tomakomai is that, unless you had a very specific idea of what you were looking for, you would get no indication it was happening. And yet in the city hall, an LCD monitor – one of the fruits of the public awareness campaign run by the municipality in conjunction with project operator Japan CCS Company – diligently reports that the amount of CO2 sequestered is increasing day on day. People know about it, too – when I went out for dinner in the evening and got talking to people, they knew about the project. I even met a salaryman who had been to one of the public information meetings, which he reported as being interesting and well-attended. But outwardly at least, there is nothing to indicate that, for better or worse, carbon dioxide is being sequestered in the geological structures near the town.

Tomakomai City Library - spent rather a lot of time in here
Tomakomai City Library – spent rather a lot of time in here

What makes this all the more intriguing is the size of Tomakomai. There are of course other CCS trials happening in the world – Boundary Dam in Canada is taking place near to Estevan (pop. 12,000), and in Germany 67,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide were injected not far from Ketzin (pop. 6,000). But Tomakomai is a different proposition altogether. Storing CO2 just 3km off the coast of a city with 170,000 people living in it, in one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world, sounds like a hard sell. But the Tomakomai project has managed to attain one of the fabled green dots on Scottish Carbon Capture and Storage’s global project map, seemingly without any large-scale, vocal or sustained societal opposition. What is going on?

This may make uncomfortable reading for proponents of CCS, but I have no intention of restricting this post or the research that follows from it to a best practice guide as to how to get a project ‘accepted’ by garnering a ‘social licence,’ or whatever the terminology of choice is these days. I am a human geographer by training and an environmental sociologist by employment, and would be neglecting my professional duties if I didn’t challenge assumptions, open things up to critical scrutiny and ask awkward questions. I was very much taken with Yasushi Maruyama’s phrasing at our GB Sasakawa workshop that silence (or a lack of vocal opposition) ought not to be equated with acceptance, and with that in mind I really want to think about what it means when CO2 storage is able to take place adjacent to a community like Tomakomai. But by the same token, credit has to be given where credit is due, and if we can learn from Tomakomai about how to govern the emergence of ethically contentious technologies with the potential to be perceived as risky, then all the better not only for CCS, but for many of the other challenging things we may have to do around climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Allotment and a large cargo ship
Allotment and a large cargo ship

I am also a great believer that blogging and other forms of social media ought never to be a substitute for the proper scientific process of peer-review, hence I don’t want to shout about my ‘results’ when (a) I’ve only been back from the field a few days and (b) I’ve not properly analysed anything, let alone written it up. But at the same time the researcher is so embedded within the qualitative research process that it’s hard to write anything about your fieldwork without saying something that reflects your impressions, thoughts and ideas from the field, and that might eventually worm its way into the proper scientific outputs. What follows, then, are just some initial hunches I’ve had either way, observations I’ve made on things that struck me as being noteworthy. Writing them up in a blog post is as much a way for me to think about gathering my thoughts as it is for the benefit of anyone who might be reading.

On one hand, the fact that CO2 storage has come to pass in Tomakomai becomes more remarkable when one considers the area’s history with big industry. It is well-documented that the early 1970s saw fairly aggressive resistance within the town towards the building of a lot of new infrastructure to the east of the city – most notably a coal-fired power station, an oil refinery/oil reserve and an aluminum plant. Much of this opposition was grounded in concern over pollution, particularly that the problems seen elsewhere in Japan with things like Minamata Disease could be repeated in Tomakomai. Hence there is arguably form for negative experience with contentious infrastructure. Today, though, the industry is well-established in the town – whenever people asked what I was doing in the town and I told them I was on a business trip, they nearly always replied ‘oh, over at Idemitsu?’ (‘Idemitsu’ being the oil refinery adjacent to the capture apparatus on the far side of the port). So in a sense, it feels a bit like the response to CO2 storage in Tomakomai today is similar to the one we got in north-east Scotland when we asked citizens and peripheral stakeholders how they felt about the Peterhead proposals. Namely, that it’s just something else a big company operating in the town (Shell for north-east Scotland, Idemitsu and partners for Tomakomai) is doing under the sea, a continuation of what they’ve been doing in relative safety and competence for the past few decades.

Oji Paper - one of the largest industries in Tomakomai
Oji Paper – one of the largest industries in Tomakomai

It is no coincidence that these big companies also happen to be big employers, which leads onto a more critical reading of what goes on in Tomakomai and places like it. Blowers (1999: 254) writes that “once established the industry exerts a ‘pull’ that is difficult to resist”, going on to argue – albeit in the context of radioactive waste disposal – that relationships of dependency can be established between industry and the communities around them. This tranche of fieldwork also took me to the town of Yubari, a former coal town which lost 90% of its population and went bankrupt after the mines closed in the early 1990s. Yubari serves as a salutary lesson for what can happen to a community which becomes dependent on – and whose infrastructure and whole built environment is geared towards – a single industry. As we are slowly and painfully starting to find out in Aberdeen, when that industry goes, a whole lot more goes with it.

During one interview in a context other than Tomakomai, I was taught a new Japanese idiom: 企業城下町(kigyō jōkamachi). Literally translated, this means ‘town under the castle of industry’, and refers to the idea that the town is completely built around an industry. Strictly speaking this refers to one single company, not the multiple energy companies we see in Tomakomai (and in any case, the biggest and most visible company in Tomakomai is the Oji Paper newsprint manufacturer). But still, the point it makes about dependency is worth reflecting on.

Tomakomai fishing port
Tomakomai fishing port

Might it therefore be the case that it becomes hard to say ‘no’ to what an industry wants to do, when that same industry provides so much employment and infrastructure? I would not for one second want to suggest this is the case in Tomakomai without interrogating my data properly. Rather, I raise it as just one example of the kind of questions social scientists should be asking when it looks as if a community is accepting of a piece of infrastructure. Whilst CO2 storage might not create new inequalities or dependencies, we need to keep our critical guard up to make sure it does not inadvertently perpetuate or magnify existing ones.

There is a long way to go with the data processing, analysis and interpretation yet. This is the first time for a while I’ve had the opportunity to really start to understand the context of a specific location, to not just have to rush in and out doing interviews, but to be able to go to the library, wander around, look at things, think. I am by no means an anthropologist, but I really can see the value of spending an extended period of time in a place. Such context is something that I am looking forward to adding to the CCS-specific literature, and of course to building out and connecting with work in environmental sociology. I’ve got a feeling this dataset is one that could run and run.

(Blowers, A. 1999. Nuclear waste and landscapes of risk. Landscape Research 24(3): 241-264)

As always, I am extremely grateful to the UK CCS Research Centre and their International Research Collaboration Fund, which has made this work possible. Thanks must also go to the CO2 Geological Storage Group at RITE for their cooperation.


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