I recently attended a focus group session in Wyoming—one of the most politically conservative states in the country—that sought to gather input from community members on a hypothetical direct air capture (DAC) facility with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).
If your company will be siting, developing, and executing decarbonization projects, you will want to know what I learned from this meeting.
In the absence of a thoughtful engagement strategy, even communities that are strongly supportive of oil and gas may reject oil-and-gas-adjacent solutions—such as DAC, CCS, and geothermal—if these projects get off on the wrong foot.
Both of these things are true:
- With all the focus on environmental justice (EJ), communities proposed as the sites for future decarbonization projects are expecting and demanding a higher level of robust, meaningful community participation in the approval process.
- Each community—even every conservative community—will require a customized engagement approach.
I did a lot of fieldwork earlier in my career in Wyoming, and I love it there. I was an interested observer of this focus group, held by a pro-DAC team with a strong, often unconscious, progressive (in every sense of the word) framework. The focus group was being held to assess whether a historic coal-, oil-, and-gas producing region would be receptive to DAC. My conclusion: Maybe.
With the spotlight on EJ, there is an expectation that better outreach will be focused on urban, historically disadvantaged communities. However, many oil-and-gas-adjacent decarbonization projects will be built in red communities and states, for several good reasons:
- More straightforward siting and permitting processes
- Natural geographies that are well suited for low-carbon-technology development
- Talented, relevant local workforces
- Welcoming business environments
This situation creates a different “justice” paradigm for these communities. Although many on the left like talking about a “just transition” for oil and gas workers and communities, I have yet to meet a worker or community that is interested in being “justly transitioned.” The truest form of “just transition” will include—not sideline—oil and gas companies, workers, and communities in building the energy future. Yet companies’ engagement with these communities will not look like their engagement with urban or blue-leaning communities.
Because the team holding the focus group did not understand the complexities behind the Wyoming community, their presentation of the DAC project made some troublesome assumptions. As a result, community members had some strong negative reactions to the project. For example, one person said, “You can take your fake-news, windmill-loving projects to California.” Another said, “Now, if our governor came in here with this project, or an oil and gas company, we would welcome it. But the way you’ve presented it today, the answer would be no.” One participant’s question summed up a common disconnect: “Why would we take perfectly good CO2 and dispose of it?” After all, this was a person who had worked on a geologic CO2 production facility.
My takeaway is that there is absolutely a path to community partnership in decarbonization projects in red states. Yet every successful engagement—right from the first focus group — must consider the unique background and needs of these communities. I’m talking about items such as the following:
- Long histories. Many conservative communities have long histories of resource development—including mining and oil and gas. With such histories come a complex array of booms, busts, collective wins, and heart-wrenching betrayals that have shaped—and continue to shape—these communities’ perspectives, priorities, and values.
- Disagreements on decarbonization. Not everyone agrees decarbonization is the right path (including many of you, my readers!). In many places across the United States, political polarization and ideological divides have left large swaths of right-of-center Americans skeptical of—or even opposed to—climate action. For example, Livingston Parish, an overwhelmingly Republican community in Louisiana, has made headlines for its opposition to proposed CCS projects. According to data from Yale, 50 percent of the community members in Livingston say they are “worried about” global warming—15 percent below the national average. If you are proposing a decarbonization project in a red community, the people there will want—and they deserve—an explanation of why the project would benefit them.
- New EJ calculus. In many cases, conservative and rural communities are disadvantaged, too. For example, the White House Council on Environmental Quality’s Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool allows users to identify overburdened and underserved communities across the United States. Many communities located in red, rural states or counties are considered “disadvantaged” by the tool, as measured by a variety of factors including income, health, education, agriculture loss, and more.
- Unique community solutions. The priorities and needs of communities will shape howyou engage with them and the solutions you create with them. Those solutions will be creative—and may not be in the current EJ toolbox. For example, collective bargaining agreements and community ownership may not be appropriate, depending on what matters to a particular community.
- Getting noticed. Your outreach efforts will quickly gather community attention. Every polling call or introductory meeting will help set the tone for community stakeholders’ understanding of your organization and your project.
Seize the day
Conservative, oil-and-gas-friendly communities are adding a new, complex dimension to stakeholder engagement for decarbonization projects. How you approach that engagement can have a real impact on the success of your company’s existing and future low-carbon projects. Here are steps you can take to avoid easy-to-make mistakes when engaging conservative and rural communities:
- Do your research. Going into a community blind is an easy way to kill a project before it starts. Research the community’s history with development and with your company to understand the lay of the land.
- Listen. Resist the urge to make assumptions about what community members may want or what may be good for them. Communities have complex relationships with companies, unions, and local and federal governments. Different stakeholders will have different priorities and interests—take stock through listening engagements.
- Choose a trusted messenger. Often what you say is not as important as who says it. When speaking with community members, consider who from your company can do it most authentically. Those best suited to engage may already be familiar with a community’s experiences and values. They may even be members of similar communities.
- Co-create. “Meaningful engagement” means solutions and decisions by your company are shaped through community feedback. Early engagement means these solutions can be built into your project plans.
Thank you to Kelsey Grant, recently promoted research analyst at Adamantine, for her writing contributions to this piece. Are you planning a decarbonization project? Want to make sure your engagement gets off on the right foot? Reach out—Adamantine can help you devise a strategy for navigating communities with unique backgrounds. Enjoying what you’re reading? Please share Both True with three colleagues.
To earning trust,