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Putting Community at the Center of the Carbon Capture Conversation

Putting Community at the Center of the Carbon Capture Conversation

Carbon management technologies (carbon capture, removal, transport, reuse, and storage) have been safely deployed in the United States and around the globe for decades. Recent incentives in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act have spurred an increase in carbon management project deployment across the nation. By the spring of 2023, dozens were under development, with the intention of being operational by the end of the decade.

This rise in development coincides with increased community opposition to carbon capture and storage projects. This opposition has emerged from various sources, encompassing resistance to development and concerns or misconceptions regarding carbon management technology, and is often deeply intertwined with historical injustices that have inflicted harm upon vulnerable communities. Overcoming this opposition will require intentional and purposeful community engagement efforts designed to build trust and truly center community voice.

Key takeaways: 
  • While carbon management technologies offer significant environmental, health, and economic benefits, project developers must be mindful of the historical experiences of communities that have been marginalized or harmed by past industrial development.
  • Community engagement can play a pivotal role in establishing trust between the community and the developer. Fostering a culture of trust through thoughtful community engagement can help create opportunities for communities to provide input into shaping the engagement process and dispel misinformation surrounding carbon management technology.
  • Developers and carbon management advocates have the capability and the responsibility to use purposeful community engagement strategies to elevate and understand community concerns, combat misinformation, and ensure the effective and equitable deployment of carbon management technology.
Community engagement can offer a pathway to rebuilding trust in communities harmed by historical inequities

Years of inequitable practices have taken their toll on communities around the country. One notable location is across eastern Louisiana, where a decades-long boom of industrial, chemical, and energy plant development along the Mississippi River has led to a public health crisis and a public outcry. An 85-mile-long concentration of pollutant-emitting plants in the area has come to be known as Cancer Alley. In some communities, cancer rates are 50 times higher than the national average.

While efforts are underway to address these significant disparities, the damage persists. Many residents associate additional industrial development, including carbon management, with industrial development from decades ago that resulted in public health and environmental crises. The long-term effects brought on by air and water pollution are an unavoidable part of life for many residents, further damaging the trust between community members and industry leaders or decision makers.

This diminished community trust stymies ongoing work to slow the rapidly advancing effects of climate change by implementing carbon management technology. However, recent work in one Louisiana community suggests that intentional collaboration between decision makers, industry leaders, and community stakeholders can help move carbon management forward and unlock tremendous economic opportunities for residents.

Louisiana emerging as leader on carbon management deployment efforts

In the last few years, Louisiana has become a leader in the efforts to mitigate climate change through the deployment of carbon management technology across the state. Earlier this month, the state announced it was awarded more than $1 billion in funding from the Department of Energy to advance the development of a direct air capture facility.

Research from the Great Plains Institute indicates that, in addition to direct air capture, the state has the capacity to capture more than 10 million metric tons of CO2 each year and store billions more safely underground. Fully tapping into this carbon management capacity would create and sustain thousands of jobs across the state while simultaneously removing harmful toxins from the air in some of the most vulnerable communities.

Ongoing work in Vernon Parish, Louisiana, shows success in fostering intentional community engagement around carbon management deployment

Vernon Parish is a small community in west central Louisiana. The parish has a population of less than 50,000, with roughly one in every six residents living below the poverty line. Nearly half of the adults in the parish who receive a high school diploma will not go on to complete a higher education degree. And yet, the parish is near many ongoing and potential carbon management projects, all of which generate jobs with wages that can be more than double the median income for high school graduates.

Amid these challenges, both community and industry leaders recognized the unique and pivotal opportunity before them to equip students with the skills and abilities that careers in carbon management demand.

Seizing on the renewed nationwide focus on career readiness for high school students, the Vernon Parish School Board, Capture Point Solutions, and the United Association of Union Plumbers and Pipefitters (UA) Labor Organization came together to create the came together to create the Capturing Better Futures Initiative. Through this initiative, high school juniors and seniors across Vernon Parish can earn course credit while learning the fundamental components of pipeline construction and maintenance. Upon successfully completing the course and graduating from high school, students will be eligible to enroll in the UA’s apprenticeship program, further propelling them toward a career in the carbon capture, transport, and storage industry. The Capturing Better Futures Initiative will enable these high school students to enter the workforce, earning substantive wages and benefits.

Vernon Travis, a member of the local school board, told the Clean Air Task Force that the project is emblematic of how community engagement is key to building the future of carbon management.

“This is the blueprint for community engagement,” Travis said.

Travis noted that assessing the needs of the community must be a priority to establish necessary partnerships. In Vernon Parish, the school board recognized the community’s need for technical training that will allow young residents to enter the workforce, earning substantive wages and benefits like free educational training, comprehensive health insurance and retirement plans as they embark on careers burgeoning industry.

The school board then recognized the benefit of bringing in partners, like Capture Point Solutions, to fund the program and UA to provide technical training.

Through a concerted effort, these partners were able to design and launch this new initiative in August. Currently, fifteen high school juniors and fifteen seniors from across Vernon Parish are part of the initial cohort of learners embarking on this journey to be leaders in developing and maintaining carbon management infrastructure.

In addition to building up the futures of area students, the program will help secure the community’s future as well. Because of the parish’s close location to Texas, local talent often get recruited for jobs out of state. With the Capturing Better Futures Initiative, students will have access to training that will allow them to build, operate, and maintain carbon management infrastructure within Vernon Parish.

Travis described to Clean Air Task Force the program’s significance for the students and the community, which he saw firsthand at the program inauguration ceremony.

“I looked in these students’ faces, and I saw hope. I looked in their parents’ faces, and I saw dreams,” Travis said. “Now, we are not just offering these students a diploma. We are offering them a career. We are offering them a future.”

Great Plains Institute works to elevate community engagement practices through Louisiana roundtables

The Great Plains Institute (GPI), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization accelerating the transition to net-zero carbon emissions for the benefit of people, the economy, and the environment, recently demonstrated the importance of third-party organizations committing to community engagement work on carbon management projects (the Carbon Action Alliance is a GPI initiative).

In partnership with Franklin & Associates, SWCA Environmental Consultants, and Carbon Solutions, GPI assisted in hosting a series of community roundtables designed to receive feedback on the support tool designed to assist in the equitable siting of carbon management projects in Louisiana. The tool utilizes key data around public health, ecological vulnerability, wildlife protection, and more to determine the social and environmental vulnerability of each census tract in the state.

Community members and decision makers alike can use the story map and the tool to ensure that any future siting of carbon management projects avoids especially vulnerable areas.

During the community roundtables, GPI staff connected with residents in four cities across the state. In Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Alexandria, and Lake Charles, community members could voice questions and concerns about carbon management and have direct access to answers from knowledgeable third-party experts.

Most importantly, residents were asked to give their input on the tool itself. Residents provided input by sharing their thoughts on the experience using the tool and by ranking how heavily each factor should be weighted to determine each community’s social and environmental vulnerability scores.

This feedback was then used to shape the tool’s design and ensure its accessibility and methodology aligned with what community members expressed they wanted and needed. By following this community engagement process, in much the same way the Vernon Parish School Board did as it developed the Capturing Better Futures Initiative, GPI was able to establish trust and develop a community-centered tool.

Engaging communities is essential for the successful deployment of carbon the management technology needed to combat climate change

The rapid deployment of carbon management technology across the country comes at a crucial time. Intensifying effects of climate change are being felt across the globe, and consensus from the scientific community makes clear that swift action must be taken to avoid reaching critical levels of warming.

That’s why implementing intentional community engagement efforts from all industry stakeholders could not be more urgent. Community input and involvement must be integrated into every aspect of the planning, siting, and development processes of carbon management projects. Community voice must be seen as a central component, not an afterthought.

Properly engaging community members in an honest and genuine way requires substantial time, energy, and intention. However, the benefits of the developed trust and the collaboration that can be forged as a result are far greater than any costs along the way.