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Tailoring risk communications for local communities - looking at experience from the CO2CRC Otway project

Risk communication, the current subject of a roundtable blog on this website, is a key action of any CCS community consultation strategy. Assuming, as research tells us, that the level of community knowledge of CCS is low, it’s important to implement a risk communication in the very early stages of the project, which is informed by community discussion and feedback, social research and media monitoring. And because CCS is a complicated technology to communicate, special care needs to be taken in developing communication messages and methods that best suit the community and each of its audiences.

The most important aspect of risk communication is to be aware of the specific issues of concern in the particular community in which a CCS project occurs. In addition to communicating known technical risks, a proponent needs to identify, listen to and respond to the risks identified by the community. It is widely acknowledged that the perception of risk relates not only to technical risk, but is also in part socially constructed. According to Covello, McCallum and Pavlova in their book, Effective Risk Communication, a person’s risk assessment is more a product of outrage than hazard, which suggests that there are things other than the technology that may be contributing to the perception of risk in the community. The proponent may need to explore, for example, how good their relations are with the community – are they viewed as a good corporate citizen? Or is the perception of risk influenced by the community’s level of comfort with and knowledge of the gas technology. Has the community consultation process been perceived as fair? Has the project been well or poorly accepted by the community? Has the project itself experienced any technical, social or environmental problems?

When I was working on the CO2CRC Otway CCS Project as the community consultation manager between 2003 and 2008, the two technological risks that most concerned the community were gas leaks into the atmosphere and the contamination of groundwater, which as dairy farmers, they used to irrigate their land. The communication messages developed in consultation with researchers, which added technical credibility, were aimed at reassuring the community the technology was safe.

For example the responses developed to address concerns about gas leaks into the atmosphere and groundwater emphasised that the potential risks had been studied in depth; discussed the geology of the area mentioning that CO2 had been stored safely at the site for thousands of years; and said that the storage site had been chosen using Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change guidelines.

These responses and others to the risks identified by the community were compiled in a question and answer format and printed in a newsletter, which was mailed out to the community and placed on the CO2CRC website. They were also included in media releases where appropriate. Further examples of CO2CRC responses to the risks identified by the community at:

The farmers told us they preferred face-to-face meetings and written material. We also gave the community a number of avenues through which they could communicate and discuss their concerns. These included the telephone, email, question and answer sessions and community meetings; anonymous feedback forms, which community members could mail to me at CO2CRC using post-paid, self-addressed envelopes; and, of course, I made sure that we addressed any concerns and queries without delay. These activities do not necessarily allay the perception of risk quickly or permanently, but they may provide some peace of mind to some or many of the community members.

There is no standard formula for CCS or any major communication program. It always needs to be tailored to the specific needs of the community. Vigilance by the proponent in listening to and responding to community concerns and combining the communication of the benefits of the technology along with its risks will help provide a balanced picture to the community about CCS.

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