Fuelling trust

Renewable and non-renewable energy projects alike face opposition across Canada. The key to public acceptance is to truly engage affected communities, say Positive Energy researchers.

Louis Simard, Monica Gattinger, Michael Cleland and Stewart Fast

Positive Energy researchers Louis Simard (left), Monica Gattinger, Michael Cleland and Stewart Fast. Photo: Andrea Campbell / University of Ottawa

‘‘Community acceptance or opposition to projects is often… far more about the level of openness, transparency or inclusiveness of decision-making processes, peoples’ confidence that governments are balanced in their decision making on the issues between industry and community interests and values.”

– Monica Gattinger

Billion-dollar energy projects are generating public opposition across Canada and beyond our borders, from the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in Labrador to a planned Pacific Northwest LNG coastal terminal to export liquefied natural gas from northern British Columbia.

But, as Monica Gattinger points out, governments and the private sector are building those large-scale development projects to meet the increasing need for power that fuels our homes, businesses and the global economy. “Bottom line: economies need energy. We need to continue to develop energy projects,” says the professor and director of the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy.

Given that reality, understanding the specific factors that drive public opposition to the projects and determining how best to respond to the needs of those affected is critical for responsible energy development.

That is the goal of Positive Energy, a three-year, $1-million research project that Gattinger chairs. Last November, the project released a report entitled A Matter of Trust: The Role of Communities in Energy Decision-Making. Conducted in collaboration with the Canada West Foundation, it draws conclusions from studies of six energy projects in Canada, including pipeline, hydroelectric, wind, shale gas exploration and natural gas power plant developments. The purpose of the research was to document the reasons why some of these endeavours succeeded in garnering public support while others failed.

Understanding community values and participating in engagement processes where stakeholders can modify the project are critical factors to gain approval, the report concludes. So is involving community members in the projects’ potential benefits, from jobs to resource-sharing agreements.

Surprisingly, climate change and the renewable or non-renewable nature of the energy projects are not the principal factors in opposition or acceptance, says Gattinger.

“One of the things that emerges from this research is that community acceptance or opposition to projects is often … far more about the level of openness, transparency or inclusiveness of decision-making processes, peoples’ confidence that governments are balanced in their decision making on the issues between industry and community interests and values, and that the risks of a particular project are both well understood and can or will be mitigated,” she notes.

The report recommends building “a much more sophisticated energy information system,” and highlights that public support will require a more stable institutional structure and inclusive regulatory process, and that local communities need to be engaged early and meaningfully in decision making. Decision processes will take more time, which will affect the federal government’s plans to “quickly force the transformation to a low GHG energy system,” the report adds.

Louis Simard, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Political Studies and one of the project’s researchers, examined a proposal to install 25 wind turbines in Saint-Valentin, Que. The province ultimately rejected the project after well-informed and organized public opposition and lack of social acceptance.

The wind project’s proponent was ill-prepared for the mobilization of opposition from seven local municipalities and landowners, rather than just the single small municipality for which the turbines were proposed, says Simard.

“The citizens were very engaged and proactive, and for them the project was incompatible with agricultural activities going on down there,” says the sociologist. “The impacts of these kinds of projects are most of the time very regional, so you have to put in place a larger approach to include all the surrounding municipalities, different actors and stakeholders to ensure that upstream they will be informed and it will be possible to modify those projects.”

Positive Energy worked with Nanos Research to ensure the case studies were informed by polling that situated the views of vocal opponents of these projects with general public opinion in their communities.

Positive Energy is supported financially by leading energy policy-makers, regulators, producers and associations, such as Natural Resources Canada, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Gattinger says the project is not “pro-development at all costs. These are all organizations who want to better understand how to build public confidence in energy decision making—including the option of saying ‘no’ to proposed projects.”

The primary message for governments, regulators and companies promoting large-scale energy developments is the importance of listening and deciphering the often contradictory things that people say and feel when it comes to energy, says Michael Cleland, a senior fellow with Positive Energy and chair of the board of directors at the Canadian Energy Research Institute.

“Local voices want a real say in their future when it comes to energy,” says Cleland, the report’s lead author. If they don’t see their concerns reflected in changes to proposed development projects, the political consequences, as well as the economic ones, may be long-lasting.


by Laura Eggertson

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