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Overcoming factors affecting community acceptance

Generally, it is agreed that community acceptance is an essential prerequisite in establishing a carbon capture and storage (CCS) project. Acceptance is influenced by many things. One of the prime factors is trust. It is through the many and varied community engagement activities, for example land access negotiations, infrastructure and siting consultations and community reference group meetings, that trust is primarily built and maintained.

It is common knowledge that trust is not easily won. However it is easily lost, and once lost is difficult to regain. One matter that can influence trust and consequently community acceptance of a CCS project would be a community’s past experience with similar technology, such as gas exploration. Clearly, there are advantages and disadvantages with this situation. The community will be broadly familiar with the gas-based technology used in CCS projects. This means that they are relatively familiar with gas technology in regard to the installation, operation and ongoing management of the technology among other things. And, if the previous proponents have been good corporate citizens, which includes implementing an effective (that is inclusive and democratic) community engagement program, they would have gained and maintained a reasonable level of trust. If, however, a previous proponent had done something to lose that trust, it then becomes much harder for subsequent proponents to develop their projects.

When beginning community engagement for the CO2CRC project with the Otway community, there is no doubt that some members of the community were cynical about the project because of their previous experience with oil and gas exploration. In one sense it was good that they understood and were fairly comfortable with gas exploration, but on the other hand their trust had been eroded because of poor community engagement and project management activities. According to some Otway farmers, fences and irrigation equipment had been damaged and left unrepaired, and cattle had injured themselves when they were startled by an 'unexpected ‘explosion’ from a nearby gas well'.

It was up to CO2CRC to demonstrate over a number of years that the researchers and other technical experts would adhere to best practice community engagement and industry principles. The project manager put in place protocols for those working on site in regard to land access and project activities. This process is common to resource companies, but it needs to be implemented and followed assiduously. Trust was gradually regained, but I don’t think it was ever fully restored among some community members, and acceptance of the project was relatively easy to gain compared to other infrastructure projects in the area such as wind farms.

Of course, nothing ever goes completely to plan. We’re all human. CO2CRC did blunder on occasion the same way previous oil and gas companies had done. But the important thing to do on these occasions is to follow the principles of risk communication: acknowledge the error, apologise and, in consultation with the landowner, have the property restored as much as possible to the same condition it was in before it was damaged.

Risk communication expert Peter Sandman provides a thoughtful perspective on trust in Trust the Public with More of the Truth: What I Learned in 40 Years in Risk Communication.

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