3.3. Public opinion of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)

Dr Paul Upham, University of Leeds

Background

Although Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is a relatively centralised technology, this briefing provides a short background on public opinion aspects for UK SME suppliers.

CCS involves the removal of CO2 from fossil fuel combustion or gasification emissions and then transportation of this to a storage site, typically a geological reservoir such as a depleted oil and gas field or saline aquifer. Forms of above ground storage (e.g. mineralisation) and re-use (e.g. algae production) are also being considered, with climate impacts dependent on the duration of storage and the extent of any fossil fuel substitution. Work is on-going to reduce the significant energy penalty of CO2 capture and compression.

In policy terms, CCS is controversial because it has the potential to permit the continued use of fossil fuel for heat and power generation beyond the point in time at which adequate alternatives are perceived to exist. Public perceptions may draw on not only local considerations, but also broader policy issues. This was highlighted in focus groups undertaken by the NearCO2 project [18] in six European countries, including the UK.

The results concurred with much of the previous work on attitudes to energy and CCS, showing: public preference for renewable energy; perception of CCS as a temporary solution; concern about increasing energy costs and distrust of large power firms in respect to CCS; and a high level of concern about the safety implications of CO2 leakage (primarily in relation to onshore storage).

In the NearCO2 research project, concerns about safety grew as more information about CCS was provided. Moreover providing further information on the difficulty of rapidly installing high levels of renewable energy supply infrastructure had little influence on opinion. The organisations and technologies were seen as tainted and the information provided was interpreted in the light of this pre-existing set of opinions.

It is possible to take a group of people through an educational and/or deliberative process that results in their viewing CCS more positively. Work as part of the UK CASSEM (CO2 Aquifer Storage Site Evaluation and Monitoring) project held a series of citizen panels [19] in Pontefract and Dunfermline.

The public met with a range CCS experts over two days and the trust engendered proved central to the development of participants' generally positive opinion of CCS. Nonetheless, participants remained distrustful of the ability and willingness of both government and business to implement CCS safely. They were also concerned about the potential cost of CCS, despite overall opinion of CCS becoming more positive through the course of the panels.

In general, studies indicate that if a population has doubts and anxieties about a technology, particularly if there is a history of low trust with the organisations involved, then substantial and sustained effort has to be expended on communication and engagement processes, without guarantees of a 'successful' conclusion.

Conversely, where a power plant has a good, long-term relationship with a local community, built over years or decades, particularly in terms of providing local employment, then the process may be easier. It is likely, for example, that Total's long-term history in Lacq, France, helped the company implement its CCS pilot project. Nonetheless, despite operating in the region since 1938, Total understood the importance of early and sustained communication and engagement with local people prior to seeking regulatory approval [20]. Conversely, where a community already feels over-burdened by development and engagement by companies falls short of expectations, severe problems can occur – hence Shell's experience at Barendrecht [21] in the Netherlands.

Other points to note

  1. Public awareness and understanding of CCS in the UK is low, though increasing.
  2. Providing information on CCS, its rationale and its risks should be only one element of an engagement strategy. In a three country comparison, CSIRO found that face to face discussion may help with information credibility [22], though in the European NearCO2 project [23], groups remained sceptical.
  3. Experience suggests that trust is enhanced [24] by perceptions of competence, preparedness and accountability (should things go wrong); fairness regarding the distribution of the costs and benefits of the project; and openness and transparency through planning, implementation and operational processes.
  4. Local stakeholders are likely to be as important as the local public for their opinion-shaping role. Maintaining relationships with stakeholders, including opponents, is considered important by developers [23].

Conclusions

CCS is an unfamiliar, potentially controversial technology with uncertainties for both publics and experts. Onshore, proximate storage may have to deal with a sceptical public. Concerns may reduce where storage is offshore (non-proximate) and/or where there is an on-going relationship between local people and the advocate organisations.