June 2013

High-risk technology? Prevent an impasse

Will shale gas face the same fate as CO2 storage and die a silent death due to a lack of support? Two recent debates on technological risks of energy innovations are showing a similar patter as the heated debates of a few years ago about plans for CO2 storage in the Dutch town of Barendrecht. Both in the discussion on test drilling for shale gas in the Netherlands (with a risk of affecting environment and landscape) and in the discussion on extraction of natural gas in the province of Groningen (with a risk of earth quakes) an enthusiastic industry is again facing direct opposition of concerned citizens. Both government and politicians are hesitant to take position. What can administrators do?

Doubts and emotions
What we have learned from Barendrecht is that doubts and concerns are not easily eliminated by facts and figures. The questions and concerns of citizens, for example property devaluation, are however never mapped in advance or have a questionable reliability. And studies of their legitimacy tend to ignore matters that are difficult to value. As a result, not enough room was offered for normative and ethical arguments in the case of Barendrecht, for example the observation that the region, with its heavy industry, is already doing a great deal for The Netherlands, Inc. In the end, tension ran so high that Minister Verhagen personally pulled the plug from the demonstration project.

Social implications
Getting energy innovations going requires paying attention to the social implications, in the substantial discussions as well as in the decision-making process. On a substantial level, this means actively exploring and taking seriously the questions and concerns that residents may have about projects. This can be done, for example,  by means of an opinion assessment or needs assessment among residents.  At the process level, administrators would do well to engage in open and constructive dialogue with citizens and other stakeholders. The key to avoiding an impasse or conflict is to really create room for local questions, ideas and initiatives in the planning process and to transparently consider the local interests on the one hand and the social benefits and needs on the other hand. After all, realisation of a more sustainable energy system is a joint challenge.

Photo Gerard Wagemakers

Suzanne Brunsting and Matthijs Uyterlinde conduct research at ECN on the social acceptance of energy innovations. You can find the report What happened in Barendrecht here.