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A sign is displayed outside of a protest camp on the Lelu Island near near Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Canada, on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016. (Ben Nelms/Bloomberg)
A sign is displayed outside of a protest camp on the Lelu Island near near Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Canada, on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016. (Ben Nelms/Bloomberg)

CLELAND, GATTINGER AND MCLEOD

For decision makers, public trust will drive future energy projects Add to ...

Michael Cleland is a Senior Fellow at the University of Ottawa. Professor Monica Gattinger is Chair of Positive Energy and Director of uOttawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy. Trevor McLeod is Director of the Centre for Natural Resources Policy at the Canada West Foundation.

Governments in Canada are moving to decarbonize our energy systems. There is a growing consensus that this energy transition is essential; there is less consensus on how, and how fast we should go. So now for the hard part – getting from “what” to “how” on energy transition.

At the core of the challenge is trust: in governments, in regulators and in energy decision makers to get something as big and as important as this right. And Canadians who live in communities where energy projects are slated to be built are telling the powers that be “We don’t trust you,” according to new research from the University of Ottawa and Canada West Foundation.

The research involved case studies of local communities from across Canada – rural, urban, indigenous, non-indigenous – that had been asked to host different sorts of energy projects: pipelines; power lines; hydro dams; gas-fired power plants; wind farms and natural gas exploration. Some projects were stopped and some went forward, some were highly contentious and some went more smoothly. But one consistent factor was the number of questions and concerns about the reasonableness of the process and the ability of public authorities to respond to local community concerns.

These concerns are much bigger than a half dozen case studies. Canada’s long-term goals on climate change and greenhouse gases will involve a fundamental rebuilding of our energy systems, from top to bottom and from production to end use. This all needs to be done over a time period less than half as long as it took to build them in the first place – and under more difficult circumstances.

But our research is telling us that the past and current efforts aren’t getting it right, and the evidence indicates that such concerns are growing.

Community concerns are by no means focused on fossil fuels or climate change. In fact, for the communities we examined, climate change was not high on the priority list, at least compared with local environmental impacts and health and safety concerns. Another big concern is about being informed and engaged. Put simply, local communities are no longer willing to be passive recipients of decisions made elsewhere. That doesn’t mean their responses will always be negative or obstructive. It does mean that they want their voices to be heard and listened to and for engagement to be meaningful.

The world of energy decision making has changed, probably permanently. If public authorities and other energy decision makers are smart about it, that change can be a good thing. It can build on a growing movement for communities to take charge of their energy futures. It can mean less chance of protest, disruption and protracted legal battles. But it will mean rethinking the process from the ground up.

Communities and individual Canadians want to have a say about the direction of energy policy. Probably more important, they want to know that planning at a regional and local scale is taking into account the full range of implications from energy development and coming up with effective solutions to reduce negative impacts and maximize local benefits. They want decision processes to engage them early and on an ongoing basis if projects are approved and when they’re being built and operated.

Across Canada, public authorities are adjusting to these new realities, as are project proponents. The closer such decision makers are to the ground – especially regulators and energy companies – the more likely it is they will have seen this coming and developed new approaches.

But there is a lot more to do to make these sorts of approaches the norm. It will require much better information systems and much more time. Decision processes will need to work much more closely with local communities and especially indigenous communities. Project proponents and public authorities will have to get used to outcomes different than those they anticipated or wanted. Sometimes success will mean getting to “no.”

But more often it will mean getting to “yes.” If we start now investing the time and resources to remake our energy decision processes – the “how”– then the big remake of the energy systems themselves, or the “what,” will become a more realistic possibility.

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