North America fact-finding visit: Learning the ropes of effective engagement

With its big open spaces, low density population and oil and gas production firmly rooted in its identity, Katarzyna Iwinska’s first impression was that Canada’s Alberta province was too different to compare to her native Poland.  

The Adam Mickiewicz University (AMU) sociologist was part of a group of senior researchers from SECURe, who undertook a 10-day fact-finding tour of North America to gather examples of best practice in geoenergy projects.

She soon changed her mind.

“Actually, it’s very similar,” she says. “The Polish energy system is rooted in and dependent on coal. I quickly made the connection between huge Alberta province with its ‘I love Canadian oil and gas’ billboards and our small district of Silesia, where people are dependent on coal mining and also have their own identity connected to the workplace and to a traditional energy source.”  

Developing strategies for engaging with stakeholders in such regions and fostering acceptance of carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS), still a relatively new technology, are key elements of the EU-funded SECURe project. With North America ahead of Europe in developing CCUS operations and with unconventional oil extraction such as fracking permitted, the trip produced many valuable learnings on public engagement.

“It takes a lot of time to shift political, economic and social mindsets. People cannot make a change immediately,” says Katarzyna. “It is not only technology where we need innovations and improvements but also with the way people think.”  

Changing mindsets

A visit to Shell’s Quest, one of the world’s biggest CCS projects and a sector pioneer, highlighted the issue of changing mindsets.

“The project was so new many people didn’t understand why there was this CO2 capture. They felt it was a waste of money and a waste of their land. They were more willing to have oil production than ‘waste’ public money on new technologies that were not needed,” says Katarzyna.

Shell spent five years engaging with local communities, policy makers and other stakeholders before beginning construction. It stressed the importance of being good listeners, not dismissing perceived risks and of identifying early on where changes can be made to a project following stakeholder feedback. It coached its experts in engagement and said it was helpful to meet stakeholders somewhere comfortable and relaxed.

“Public engagement takes many reiterations between project developers, authorities, stakeholders and communities. It is not a single event process,” says Aleksandra Lis, also a sociologist at AMU, of her key learnings from the trip. “The main goal is to gradually build up trust and work out a common language. Another important aspect is the ability and willingness to listen to one another.”

Enhance Energy, an Alberta-based group which uses CO2 in enhanced oil recovery, also highlighted the value of early engagement. Even in Edmonton, Alberta’s capital, where subsurface energy has a high profile, gaining stakeholder trust and public acceptance, including education, were considered from the outset. Among other things, it ran leaflet and doorstep campaigns outlining the importance it placed on monitoring its activities.

Public misconceptions

Improving public understanding of geoenergy is important because there are many misconceptions, notes Jan ter Heege, an induced seismicity specialist at TNO, the Dutch organisation for applied research, another SECURe team member.

“For example, people talk about fracking fluids coming to the surface through the fractures which connect reservoirs to groundwater. This is almost never observed – if there is pollution, it is usually related to leaks or spills at the surface or, occasionally, because of poor well construction,” he says. “It is one of the mismatches, if you wish, between what people think and what actually happens if you zoom in on the technical details.”

Nevertheless, projects must work with local communities to build trust. At Quest, for example, Shell started off with a “huge effort” in monitoring, partly because of public perceptions, he notes. This required them to demonstrate in detail what was happening in the subsurface during CO2 injection.

Decatur sets a gold standard

In terms of engagement and community relations, the Illinois State Geological Survey’s Illinois Basin-Decatur Project (IBDP) scored particularly highly, the team found. The project is based at an Archer Daniels Midland’s plant, which transforms commodities such as corn and soybeans into bioethanol and other products. It stores captured CO2 at a rate of 1,000 tonnes a day.

“Decatur has an exemplary approach to public engagement activities. It is really a gold standard – the levels of engagement and the clarity of the information,” says Jonathan Pearce, head of the Carbon Dioxide Storage team at the British Geological Survey, SECURe’s coordinator.

Like others, IBDP underlined the need to listen to stakeholders as well as speak to them, to consider the social context, and to learn from interactions – it had adapted its approaches over time. Nor were social and technical risks separated: it advised considering the two equally and together.

“Public engagement was organised not as a separate, time-framed element but as an ongoing part of the whole project,” says Aleksandra. “There was also very high sensitivity to the social context. The developers learned about the specific context of the communities and stakeholders that they engaged with. They did not assume that fears and hopes, perceptions and needs are universal in communities but, rather, they are shaped in specific social contexts.”

An important element of the project’s outreach activity is its partnership with the local community college, where it helped set up a CCS centre with US government funding. The centre offers vocational and degree courses with the benefits of CCS put into a wider low-carbon technology context, including soil and biomass carbon sequestration, local wind energy and regeneration of prairie vegetation. Students have work experience opportunities at the project and can draw on its data, enabling ‘real life’ assignments.

“That’s a really good way of embedding a project in the local community,” says Jonathan of the collaboration with Redland Community College.

The US leg of the trip also highlighted how mineral rights regimes influence public engagement.

“In the US, the landowner generally also owns the mineral rights below, whereas in Europe the state or the Crown owns those rights. So, there is not the potential to lease your land and share in the commercial gain,” says Jonathan. “That creates a very different dynamic.”

Online engagement tools

The team was also keen to see examples of participative monitoring of projects, an aspect of public engagement being explored in SECURe. This was in evidence at the US government’s National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh: it has developed online tools to enable the community to investigate specific hazards, a resource which could serve as a model for future provision in Europe.

Online tools are also making it easier to reach vulnerable groups, including indigenous populations, says Katarzyna. In Canada, a project facilitated by the Alberta Energy Regulator has created a website for local communities to share local knowledge, information about places of importance and their vision of the environment.

The project has engaged with local leaders who have in turn invited others to participate, creating a “pyramid of involvement”. People can communicate with each other on the website, which is open only to participants.

“This is a very interesting project to empower vulnerable groups who are not so used to being engaged and who need additional forms of communication and support to believe that what they think is important and also to trust the experts,” she says.

“In Europe, we also have many groups that don’t know their rights and are sometimes overlooked in decision-making processes.  In Poland, local communities are not so willing to engage in public, unless it is their own land at stake. We are very much focusing on how to make people more interested in participating and then how to consult on projects with them.”

Trip exceeded expectations

Overall, the trip to North America exceeded expectations, with the team very appreciative of the access and detailed information they were given.

“There was a real openness and willingness to share information, including at the commercial operations. That was very pleasing and very helpful,” says Jonathan. “Gaining local community support requires sustained, consistent and continuous engagement over the long term. Respect and understanding community needs help to build trust.”

Photo: Katarzyna Iwińska of Adam Mickiewicz University and Michael Kupoluyi of Risktec at Alberta’s Dinosaur Provincial Park. Credit: Helen Taylor-Curran