Public Engagement, Misinformation Loom Large In CCS Advancement

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When asked about gaining acceptance for carbon capture and storage projects, James Millar said he’s seeing the same bad movie he has seen before.

“I really believe if you do not have public acceptance, you do not have a project,” said the president and chief executive officer at the International CCS Knowledge Centre, while speaking at this year’s Carbon Capture Canada event in Edmonton.

Millar said activists are using the “same playbook” they did against Northern Gateway, TMX, Line 5, and others, on CCS.

“I am seeing some of the same mistakes being made in North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Louisiana and that’s why I say the same bad movie,” he added.

Millar participated in a panel discussion alongside Vanessa Goodman, manager HSE and communications, North West Redwater Partnership; Norm Sacuta, director of communications, Petroleum Technology Research Centre (PTRC); and Greg Maidment, director, operations and applied research, Carbon Management Canada.

The session dubbed Addressing Risks and Promoting Community Engagement was moderated by Spencer Schecht, senior client engagement lead, Global CCS Institute.

“The biggest issue you can do as a company is not think the public engagement, public acceptance is going to trip you up,” Millar said. “There are people who wait until it’s an issue, before going in and educating the public and telling them baseline information that CCS is a safe, proven technology.

“Why is it that we wait until there is an issue and then we fly the CEO in from Houston in a suit and tie and he is going to save the day? We need to be in front of people, we need to be educating people, we need to be giving them the facts,” he added. “It’s not happening, and it scares the hell out of me, because when we get those other things taken care of and if we don’t do public engagement right, there aren’t going to be projects.”

Out in front of it

Millar referenced a 2023 study by Stanford University regarding disposal of wastewater deep underground Peace River, Alberta and earthquakes. The study author called the event in question a cautionary tale in an area where government and industry look to expand hydrogen production and carbon capture and storage.

“CCS causes earthquakes: three words,” he said of the public message sent.

“How many words do I have to spend explaining that doesn’t occur, that there’s natural settling in the ground? Everyone knows in the room, if you’ve dealt in this area, when you are explaining you’re losing.”

Millar laid out points companies should keep in mind when dealing with public perception-related challenges, including plans to combat misinformation.

“You want to be out in front of it,” he said.  

“Do you have the credibility with stakeholders for your message to be able to be trusted? Are your executives, leaders and spokespeople and community representatives trained on what to say and how to say it?”

Millar called one’s FAQ (frequently asked questions) “your bible.”

“Everyone needs to speak consistently — if you don’t speak consistently, you’re going to get in trouble.”

Goodman spoke about how the public aspect is a step in the project process that can’t be overlooked.

“If you think effective stakeholder engagement or community engagement is expensive, try not doing effective stakeholder engagement and community relations,” she said. “We have heard many times … of projects that have gone through every other ticked box, the economics, the engineering, you have the land, you have everything sorted out and the last hurdle that is required is public engagement.

“It feels soft and squishy but … it takes time and emotional labour to make sure your community has the awareness, understanding and support for these projects before you ever consider going to a regulatory hearing.”

Survey: CCS awareness

Goodman prepared for the public perception component of the panel discussion by conducting an informal, anecdotal survey related to CCS. The survey, which took place over three months included nearly 100 people, she told the DOB in an email. 

“I would say the vast majority of us in this room have been doing CCS for many years, so we have a great depth of knowledge. But we forget that the average Albertan is certainly not where we are.”

According to Goodman, the poll included random people in various age groups and lines of work, and was done in-person so she could read their facial expressions.

Two-thirds of the people she spoke to have had no concept of what CCS was. Her theory before starting the survey was that it would be 90 to 95 per cent.

“ … One-third was at least aware,” said Goodman.

Some of the participants, she said, raised questions about leakage.

“But very few people talked about understanding that we are doing it and have been doing it for decades and it is definitely a solution to climate change.”

Goodman said it was interesting to see where the average Albertan was on CCS and said that can possibly be extrapolated to the average Canadian.

“As we know, we can’t get support until you have understanding and understanding begins with awareness,” she added. “We have to realize, in this room of CCUS experts, two-thirds of Albertans are still at the lack of awareness stage, never mind moving through understanding and support.”

Maidment wondered if the average Canadian is the same as the average Albertan.  

“I feel like we get a little bit of extra social licence … for CCS in this space, because we all know a geologist, reservoir engineer, someone that we trust that says ‘this is OK,’ …” he said. “I think that is part of the reason Saskatchewan and Alberta have been really leading in this space — because we have that general awareness.”

Justice overseas

Schecht asked about the term environmental justice and what that means in the context of CCS project development.

In response, Sacuta started by saying he thinks that term means different things depending on the group using it. 

“We are trying to demonstrate in the west we are going to deal with carbon capture and storage, we are going to deal with emissions reductions, but for us to be saying to developing countries like Nigeria or other countries, that you can’t use your resources anymore in a way because we have already burned everything and you can’t burn yours, is a kind of injustice to them,” he added.

“What I think we have to do for environmental justice is … share our knowledge about CCS, about reducing [emissions] from hydrocarbons with them, in order that they can continue to use the natural resources that they feel they want to use.”

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