Engaging communities in the energy decision-making process

By Steven Pacifico, Director, Energy Exchange

On October 5th and 6th I had the pleasure of participating as guest and panelist at the Positive Energy Initiative’s Engage Conference focused on the role of communities in energy decision-making processes.  This topic is something that is very important to Energy Exchange because one of our mandates is to help Canadian communities understand the energy system better so that so that they can make informed decisions and be part of creative solutions development.

The case study research conducted by the Positive Energy Initiative at the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society, and Policy and the Canada West Foundation is ground breaking because they actually asked communities what some of the key issues were with regards to energy development and the regulatory/consultation process. Many of the assumptions we have about the resistance to energy infrastructure projects in Canada today are not correct—it’s not just about pipelines, oil sands, and climate change—there are many issues with the engagement process that have left communities feeling disenfranchised and in turn creating resistance to energy project development.

There are four key factors that are critical to think about when redesigning the community engagement process:

  1. Community Context is Important:  Every community is different and wants to be engaged in a format that respects these differences. A one-size-fits all approach—which our regulatory system currently uses—will not work.  Relationship building is also critical.  Think of energy infrastructure projects like a marriage.  Who would go into a long-term commitment without knowing their partner fully?  This suggests the need for a more flexible regulatory process that allows the community to help shape how they would like to be engaged.
  1. Community Values Must be Addressed: Many times when industry or governments go into communities with the idea for an energy development project, they tout the economic benefits—which are important; but, if a community values a pristine environment, clean air, or social well-being, project proponents and regulators must address these issues as a priority.  Interests can be negotiated, values cannot.  There also needs to be dual processes that allow for macro issues (i.e. climate change) and micro issues (i.e. ground water contamination) to be discussed in the regulatory process.  Right now regulators are having to deal with macro issues which traditionally was not in the scope of their mandate to deal with.  From a community perspective, it is also critical to deal with regional planning efforts and cumulative effects in the regulatory process.
  1. Access to Information:  Communities are finding it very hard to access information in a timely manner with regards to industry and regulatory processes.  There is also the issue of which information sources can be trusted.  It is important to provide communities with easily accessible and third-party verified (objective) research.  There is possibly a role for an information arbitrator to act on behalf of the community—which in theory should be the regulators responsibility, but at this moment in time not all regulators hold the trust of Canadian communities.  In addition, we need more robust energy data to help support the decision making process.  If energy is critical to Canada’s future, then we need to have mature data, analytics, and effective communications to demonstrate to Canadians the value proposition of energy development.
  1. Real and Early Engagement:  Our processes for engagement in this country are starting to become antiquated.  The classic consultation will not work for much longer, as we have busier and more hectic lives.  New methods of engagement are necessary to get a wider reach within a community because typically those who go to town halls or consultations have already established a viewpoint.  Many times the loudest voices dominate the discussion and they do not always represent the views of the entire community.  Communities must be engaged much earlier in the project design and regulatory process to see if there is even any interest in moving forward (i.e. interest test).  One possible idea would be to create a database of energy projects that communities across Canada would like to host based on their energy and land-use plans.  In a modernized community consultation process, true collaboration with communities will become the norm and to really move this agenda forward communities may want to have a real financial stake in the project.  In Europe, community ownership was a key factor in the early adoption of renewable energy projects.

shutterstock_358521821I believe that we will find great engagement models to emulate throughout Canadian Indigenous communities as they are trailblazing a new way for us to look at energy development in Canada.  While the context is different for all communities, the important discussions and partnerships that are happening within Indigenous communities will help to transform how we engage all communities in Canada in the energy-decision making process.

Some key questions that I still struggle with are:

      1. How do we respect local community issues against national priorities?
      2. Who will bear the costs for re-visioning and implementing a new approach to engaging communities?
      3. Everyone talks about fact-based, science-based decision making, but in most things you can find research that supports or contradicts your position.How do we create objective processes in a world that is so very subjective?

This research is critical to moving Canada’s energy aspirations forward.  We are in a moment in time where we need to invest in our future low-carbon energy system and this will require a national/ regional visions of who we want to be and where we want to go.  Critical decisions have to be made or we will all lose many forms of capital that future generations will depend on to have a similar quality of life that we enjoy today.   I look forward to future phases of this research and offer Energy Exchanges support to help find solutions.