Coincidentally, given the previous post, the last paper out of research that Energy Transitions in Canada undertook on the Mactaquac decision came out today in Water Alternatives. This new open source paper features both qualitative and quantitative analysis of a randomized proportional survey of 500 New Brunswickers implemented back in 2014, before the official public engagement campaign began in earnest. We compare the results of that survey against insights from our qualitative fieldwork with local residents, undertaken in 2013-2014. The paper describes how and why the local and provincial discourses came to align. It is part of a special issue on dam removal, so thanks to co-editors Chris Sneddon, Régis Barraud, and Marie-Anne Germaine for their hard work on the collection.
A balm to my sketchy mood on this unsettled Friday is Arcade Fire’s new anthem of consumerism, Everything Now. Besides its irresistible groove, the video is a showcase of energy landscapes and other used up utilitarian infrastructure, and the lyrics skewer the attitudes that propagate our footprint:
Every inch of sky’s got a star
Every inch of skin’s got a scar
I guess that you’ve got everything now
The only way it could be more perfect for my research program would be if there were some livestock trundling through that rangeland. Happy weekend, everyone.
I was in Moncton for a meeting with DUC on Friday when the What Was Said report arrived in my email inbox. This report is a compilation of the stakeholder process that NB Power has so far undertaken around the future of the prematurely aging Mactaquac hydroelectric dam. They’re careful not to call it a social science report or stakeholder analysis, which is appropriate, being the combined work of Corporate Research Associates (CRA) polling and National PR firm coding. Report authors suggest that New Brunswickers voiced almost unanimous concern about the environment (particularly fish passage), taxpayer burden, local and renewable energy sources, local suppliers, and transparent process. There was a nice geographic comparison of priorities: based on self-declared postal codes those in the region were predictably more concerned with community impacts than cost; vice versa for non-residents.
They could make much more meaning from what was collected. CRA did two surveys of 400 New Brunswick residents in 2015 and 2016, before and after the public engagement, but the results are aggregated (e.g. 59% heard of the Mactaquac issue) rather than compared across years to demonstrate changing awareness. The awareness indicated here is also captured as yes/no, rather than by levels of awareness as we did in 2014, when only 7% of our 500 survey respondents considered they knew quite a bit or a lot about the Mactaquac decision. Our new report, Mactaquac and Beyond (2016), delves into the drivers of various opinions on Mactaquac (among other things), revealing an imbalanced tug-of-war between economic benefits (rebuild with power – the dominant opinion) and environmental impacts (remove – minority view), with rebuild without power a compromise option driven by landscape and cost concerns. For female respondents the issue was a local one, particularly influenced by self-judged knowledge of the Mactaquac issue, while for men preferences rode on larger principles such as conservatism or position on hydroelectricity. Risk was a driver for the ill-informed, which suggests that misinformation about the possibility of failure may be influencing results. This kind of impartial social science is important, but also usefully associates perceived impacts and preferences with options, which is something that seems to have been intentionally avoided in the NB Power process as reported.
Thematic coding is a process of generalization and erasure, and must be undertaken very carefully and by trusted parties. The data collection itself can introduce many biases as well. It was interesting to see the different themes emerging depending on the type of data collection/intervention: Mactaquaction was clearly bombed with ‘keep the dam’ comments (note there was no way to avoid multiple entries), though environment topped other modes. Yet, what is in that huge ‘Other’ category, NBP? Later analyses of community and fish passage sessions include First Nations themes lumped with Infrastructure/Transportation and Other. Those are strange bedfellows. This is a green versus green debate: climate mitigation and an adapted headpond versus fish passage and hydrological integrity. What was included in ‘environment’ and how were these sources coded? This work suggests that fish passage only came up in the formal submissions, and transparency only in community sessions, but the appendices themselves belie this.
Our first Mactaquac paper is less-than-lovingly reproduced from page 149 to 159 of the largely unsearchable scanned appendices (not including my less formal commentaries and feedback). The appendices include formal submissions from groups such as WWF, NCC and the NB Salmon Council dated as far back as January 6, 2015, including one from energy project collaborator Tom Beckley (p. 173-178) about his multiple relationships with the dam landscape as landholder, taxpayer, Local Service District committee member and scholar. His piece is a nice microcosm of the complexity of the Mactaquac decision. None of these thoughtful submissions is given any response. Appendix E, the Public Correspondence Snapshot, goes back even further, to December 15, 2014, and is filled with rich stories and important questions (all anonymized). The parts we can see scanned sometimes include quick replies that suggest an answer to the proffered questions will be forthcoming (see below): how powerful it would have been if these submissions AND answers were posted online as they arrived! As mentioned in our recent Mactaquac paper, this could help bring the conversation from “me” to “we”.
One submission in particular caught my eye, from a student at Nackawic High School who believes that the decision has already been made not to rebuild (p. 246), asking questions to complete a Journalism class assignment. My first thought was… since when does NHS offer Journalism? My elective options in 1989 were typing and child care. But secondly and clearly more salient here: the fact that such misinformation existed in April 2016 (and perhaps still exists), likely transmitted by a parent or teacher, was disturbing. Unlike other submissions, there is no evidence from the Appendices if the student ever got an reply – even poorly informed questions should be addressed, maybe especially poorly informed ones.
So what now? What will happen with What Was Said, and how will it feed into the decision? When will we hear about First Nations consultation, though at least one group has come out for removal? When will we get more details on options 3 or 4, comparable to that available for 1 and 2? What about real estate analyses? Impact on the river ecosystem? The NB Power and NSERC funding to the Canada Rivers Institute so far has generated lots of data, available through their ArcGIS online storymap, but a little preliminary synthesis would be great.
I have been back from ISSRM for a week, but haven’t had time to reflect on the final day of the conference, or the day of energy team meetings that followed. The second day concluded with a great beachside picnic on Lake Superior, on one of that lake’s few very still days. The horizon was just a haze, without even the typical mirage of something beyond. I enjoyed numerous pasties (in honour of the Cornish miners who settled the copper-rich area), some frisbee with Jim Robson, new appointment at USask, and great covers by scholar Paul van Auken’s band up from Oshkosh, WI.
Saturday at ISSRM began with a keynote by Riley Dunlap on climate change denial, after which I enjoyed a diverse session on risks and hazards. At lunch a dramatic storm rolled in, keeping me from Allan Curtis‘ session on farmer identity, though I did make (damply) the rest of his well-chaired session on agricultural adoption and transitions. The final session I attended featured Dylan Bugden‘s new thinking about power and justice in energy siting, which developed into a great discussion, though I had to miss Tom Beckley’s follow-up on the NB citizen jury as a result.
Sunday the energy group met for breakfast at local Finnish diner Suomi for some of the local speciality, pannekakku (a custardy pancake) and some more ‘distinctive’ Michigan table service. Then back to Michigan Tech and various spots for meetings and meals, as well as attempting to remedy my then dramatic caffeine deficiency (so sad I discovered 5th and Elm so late in the trip!), culminating in a nice pizza meal at the Ambassador. The shuttle came early, which was good since I discovered upon getting to the airport that my return ticket had been mysteriously cancelled. They found me a route home, though longer than planned, but I was glad to take it.
Day two at ISSRM got off to a great start with MTU environmental historian Nancy Langston‘s rich tale of mining waste, public health, indigenous culture, wetland ecosystems and politics around Lake Superior. Her stage presence was engaging but also graceful; she almost danced the story. This was followed by two data-rich reflections on the challenges of survey methodologies by Rich Stedman and Doug Jackson Smith (a great follow-up to Josh Fergen’s talk yesterday), after which I hopped over to session D in our Energy Landscapes mini-conference to learn about biomass fuels and ecosystem service perceptions. After lunch, our culminating mini-conference panel was a great success, ably chaired by Tom Beckley after I came down with laryngitis. Great observations were offered up by all panel members to get things started, including some questioning the vocabulary of the session title itself: landscapes, transitions, etc. About thirty in the audience provided great prompts for the panel, covering different energy source trade-offs, useful theory, viable policy settings, important social questions and more, offering optimistic and more apocalyptic scenarios. The final parallel session of the day had Tom recounting the NB Electricity Futures Citizen Jury, and Chris Clarke talking about psychological distance in acceptability of shale gas (complementary with Anne Junod’s description of the ‘Goldilocks zone’ yesterday). A very ‘energetic’ day.