Japan’s first large-scale CCS demonstration: the social side

This post summarises another paper out this month. This is an investigation into the social dimensions of the Tomakomai CCS Demonstration Project, Japan’s first large-scale carbon capture and storage project.

What is the key point of this paper?

The key point of this paper is that carbon capture and storage – a potentially crucial low-carbon energy technology – is being implemented in Tomakomai City in Hokkaido, northern Japan to seemingly broad consent from the local community. This is important because although carbon capture and storage may be very important for Japan’s energy future, elsewhere in the world CCS projects have been cancelled or delayed due to public concern. To get to this point, however, the project developers have had to work very hard and in close collaboration with the local authorities and independent scientists to show the community that the project is viable and that they have adequate monitoring and contingency procedures in place. Our study is one of the first scientific papers in the world to look at the Tomakomai project, and as far as we know the first piece of empirical social science research to be published looking specifically at Tomakomai.

Tomakomai fishing port

What is carbon capture and storage?

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) involves trapping the carbon dioxide emissions from coal- or gas-fired power stations or industrial sources like steel, cement and chemical works. This carbon dioxide is then transported, usually by pipeline or ship, and injected into geological structures such as depleted oil and gas reservoirs deep underground. In Tomakomai, carbon dioxide is captured from a facility within an oil refinery to the east of the city. It is then injected, via two wells drilled from onshore, into storage sites several kilometres offshore and more than a kilometre below the seabed.

What were the findings, and what is new or significant about them?

Our main finding is that it is evidence of good monitoring processes, and the developer going slow and taking a precautionary approach, that seems to have kept the community on-side. In other words, rather than just giving an outright assurance that the captured carbon dioxide is securely stored, in Tomakomai the local authority and scientists from the Marine Ecology Research Institute have put a lot of effort into explaining to the community why they can make these claims and how they will know should carbon dioxide for any reason find its way to the seabed.

These findings are especially interesting because the Tomakomai project could be considered a ‘difficult’ case for progressing carbon dioxide storage. It is next to a big community (175,000 people), with a lot of pride in local fisheries, in a country where there is recent experience of the relationship between energy, seismic activity and the sea. Our findings also tell us that history matters. Carbon dioxide storage under the seabed in Tomakomai follows on from a long history of activity in Tomakomai Bay which has interacted with the area’s fisheries, such as paper manufacturing and industrial development. All of this offshore activity in the past shapes how people feel about a new project happening in the present.

The lesson for carbon capture and storage projects globally is that project operators have to be prepared to understand the local context, and that if they want to replicate what Tomakomai has achieved so far there may be a need to monitor to a standard that is considered socially appropriate above and beyond what is ‘scientifically’ required.

Why is this research important?

As above, CCS may have an important role to play in Japan fulfilling its climate change obligations. Under the Paris Agreement, Japan has committed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 26% by 2030 compared to 2013 levels – yet the country still relies heavily on coal-fired electricity generation. More widely, though, our paper also indicates that for any big infrastructure project offshore, community relations to the sea can be complex. Developing an in-depth understanding of the relationship between society and the sea is thus important in determining whether a development is appropriate for an area or not.

How was the research conducted?

Between 2014 and 2016, we interviewed people with an interest the Tomakomai CCS Demonstration Project – project operators, local government, regional government, NGOs, fishers, port authorities and so on. These interviews took place not only in Tomakomai, but also across Hokkaido and Japan more widely to find out what people who might be able to shape societal opinion thought about the project. Furthermore, we visited the libraries in Tomakomai City and for all Hokkaido (located in Sapporo). There we looked at old newspapers and historical reports, to understand the history of infrastructure development and environmental change in the sea off Tomakomai.

It is worth noting the interdisciplinary nature of the research team – environmental sociology, marine biology and geology. Jun accompanied me to Tomakomai for some of the fieldwork, doing the interviews alongside me and helping to dig out useful material in the archives. Maybe at some point in the future I will go out in a boat by way of return!

Who funded the research?

The research was funded by a grant from the UK CCS Research Centre International Research Collaboration Fund, held between RGU and the Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth. Initial pilot interviews were done via a Japan Foundation Fellowship, and further analysis and writing up of the archive data was possible thanks to a Regional Studies Association Early Career Grant.

Mabon, L, Kita, J and Xue Z (2017) ‘Challenges for social impact assessment in coastal regions: a case study of the Tomakomai CCS Demonstration Project’ Marine Policy DOI: 10.1016/j.marpol.2017.06.015

You can read the full paper here. Email l.j.mabon@rgu.ac.uk if you can’t get access.

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

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