Centre for
SOCIAL RESEARCH IN ENERGY AND RESOURCES

Research

'Managing Low Emissions Coal Technologies Project Risk: The role of Public Awareness' Coal Innovation NSW, Funded for $661,946 over 2 years.

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This project develops a detailed understanding of the social, technical and geographical factors that affects opinions and beliefs about low emissions coal technology. It employs an Actor Network Theory (ANT) framework from Sociology of Science and Technology Studies (STS) to analyse how different NSW community, policy/expert and media networks interact at local, regional and global levels to constitute public opinion on low emissions coal or low emissions coal technologies. Rather than assuming technologies are mere tools through which actions are performed by humans, ANT examines assemblages or 'couplings' of people and machines together. Online and 'offline' social science research methods are to be employed to understand how habits, practices and cultural frames inform beliefs about technologies, anticipate how and why issues arise and inform a 'solutions network' to mitigate their impact on projects.


'Chronicling Munmorah: A Socio-Visual history of Electricity'
Delta Electricity.

CSRER Researchers were commissioned to document the existing stock of artefacts onsite at Delta Electricity site at Munmorah. This included documenting faults (pipes where steam leaks occurred) and preserved wildlife that have bypassed filters, as well as documenting the existing stock of electricity generation technologies. These images will not only document the site and its social and material history, but also inform government, local and corporate stakeholders on appropriate legacy procedures and artefacts.


'Design of a consumer campaign to reduce energy and resource consumption'
Lake Macquarie City Council.

The Lake Macquarie City Council in Australia determined that it would position reduced consumption of energy and resources as positive and desirable behaviour for its residents and small businesses. CSRER was awarded a competitive research grant under the council's Environmental Research Grants program to examine how the Council's position could be translated into a strategic communication program using an innovate public relations positioning framework as a design tool. The research showed that the framework successfully guided the development of an implementation strategy and research is continuing to monitor issues related the program implementation.


'Evaluating the Social Impact of an Industrial Ecology Park development in New South Wales'
Industry Funded project.

Since the introduction of the concept in 1989, attention to planned eco-industrial park (EIP) development projects has grown all over the world. Benefits are said to include the reduction of greenhouse gases, acidifying compounds and other air emissions; reduced raw material depletion and waste production and promoting pollution prevention and recycling approaches. The overall aim this research is to provide a systematic evaluation about the potential social impacts of the development of an Industrial Ecology Park can have on an existing rural population in New South Wales. A social impact assessment is a structured process involving the identification of potential consequences of a current or proposed action. Impact assessments seek to predict and understand what impacts may occur, attempting to reveal unintentional, avoidable consequences of a proposed action.

The research provides a significant opportunity for local stakeholder participation in the development of the Industrial Ecology Park. Participation in such industrial development creates opportunities for stakeholders to establish a sense of ownership in the project underway. It also provides opportunities for local stakeholders to develop their social capital in relation to these sorts of development.

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Building Social License in the Energy and Resource Sector

Introduction - Building Social License

Economists and Sociologists have recently developed a sophisticated suite of rigorous methods to assess and optimise the distribution of economic and social returns. Research demonstrates that social license to operate is a perception that varies in time and among groups. It is hard to earn and easy to lose. The concept of 'building' social license refers to the practical ways the economic and social impacts of a project are perceived to be distributed according to a range of justifications. Sociologists have used the concept of justification in studies of markets and organisations to show how the valuation of the same object is interpreted by different social groups depending upon how it is configured and maintained. Justifications are incommensurable expressions of 'higher common principles' that economic actors use in debates to demonstrate the worth of a project beyond its economic utility (Boltanski & Thevenot 2006). For example, providing multi-use facilities which contribute to the civic and creative  life of a community can enhance the social license of project proponents. These insights also apply to the negotiation of controversy and the making of 'publics' around new economic developments and associated change issues. 'Building' refers to the way social licenses are negotiated, measured and optimised both over time and spatially in many diverse and often fluid social arrangements.

Using social scientific methods our collective understanding of the concept of social license can be a powerful tool to characterise the pathways of change. Economics has developed a range of inventive methods to chart how economic value diffuses from primary, secondary and tertiary economy sectors into the wider social networks and communities. Input/Output Modelling follows the flow on effects of mining investments into existing communities by quantifying the linkages and transactions between different sectors of the regional economy in order to measure the multiplier effects of any new development; choice modelling can then be employed to show how tradeoffs are evaluated by local actors (firms, individuals) confronted with rapidly changing economic circumstances.

Sociological inquiry of organisations have shown how accounting classifications are negotiated internally within organisations according to a range of justifications, rather than measured according to use (e.g. Hopwood 2009). Ethnographic studies of innovation demonstrate the importance of keeping multiple justifications in play to justify the worth of new economic processes and practices (Stark 2009). The concept of social license recognises these internal debates and widens their scope to include new social actors who can reinforce the position of some actors within an organisation and weaken others.

Sociological analysis of both the 'context' and 'content' of markets have also been enriched by new technologies and methods to chart relations between actors. New Economic Sociology and Social Network Analysis has examined information flows and blockages within and between firms to illustrate how economic exchange is coordinated by social relations and dispersed ties with varying levels of reciprocity. This includes studies of how prices are set between competing firms (White 2002) and how knowledge is diffused between local actors and communities. A central challenge for contemporary research is to integrate this well honed literature on the social organisation of markets with analysis focusing on the development and diffusion of technology and its interface with the socio-economic. Integrating the study of the social and technical dimensions of markets would lead to a much richer understanding of the ways the value of social license is built.

1. Building and Contesting Social license

Outcomes include:

  • Recommendations to improve social regulatory frameworks: both voluntary and mandatory
  • Evidence of how social governance mechanisms have been implemented locally
  • Networked evidence to build effective and sustainable social licence to operate.

The concept of 'social license' marks the shift from passive compliance with regulation to new, active forms of community consultation and has raised the question of whom firms are accountable to and how. Decision-making becomes less concerned with applying rules, than negotiating them.

Issue: Social License of CSG and CCS - How are publics concerned with how Coal Seam Gas and Carbon Capture and Storage is distributed, mobilised and constituted? To what extent are the timings of protests significant in relation to each technology? How are protests formed and why? What is the role of co-existence? What are strategies beyond conflict?

  • Given the range of social regulatory frameworks in operation from the resource 'royalties for regions' policy in Western Australia to the exploration of social impact bonds in NSW, tangible outcomes from this stream of research will include recommendations for improving social regulatory frameworks through a comparative study of voluntary and mandatory approaches. This informs the development of measures for benchmarking the responsiveness and dynamism of impact management plans in dealing with changing growth scenarios, evolving cumulative impacts and planning needs; as well as a thicker understanding of how sustainability reporting, corporate social governance frameworks and consultation conditions are implemented locally by firms.

2. Understanding the socio-economic impacts of resource extraction

Outcomes include:

  • The social and economic impacts of resource extraction on resource intensive regional communities
  • Robust and valid understanding of the social groups that structure issues and mobilization
  • Policy recommendations to effectively deal with the socio-economic effects of mining expansion and sustainable resource intense operations

Housing, land-use conflict and protest mobilisation issues all represent areas where the socio-economic boundaries of mining investment have been contested and negotiated. Further research into these issues could usefully employ a combination of economic and sociological methods

i. Land use concerns - what is out of bounds for mining? Agricultural land? Nature reserves? Zoning and rezoning decisions present a fertile site for understanding protest. For example, recent protests around mining exploration into the Bimblebox nature refuge raised questions about rezoning issues and conservation values. How are concepts of 'prime agricultural land' qualified and delineated – using what measurement devices and methodologies and with what justification?

ii.Social protest - direct action campaigns are having an impact upon regulatory assessment mechanisms. How are such mobilisations over issues organised? Can variations in levels of participation, conditions of crystallisation of emergent protest and success in effecting change be explained by contingent political opportunity structures? How do NGOs and professional issue-oriented advocacy groups interact with local 'grass roots' community organisations or earlier local traditions of collective action in mobilising organisational resources and informal networks to launch and sustain protest (McAdam & Boudet 2012)? The timing of protest at different stages of resource cycle development is also a significant area of study. Are there points in the resource cycle where operations are normalised and there are no challengers?

iii. Skill, technics and affects - the pull of high wages has had a range of impacts across the economy. How does the experience of economic growth and rising aggregate wages impact on smaller towns and communities across the country? Social and economic questions raised include: what are the impacts of the loss of young technical professionals on the experience of communities? How are internal labour markets in the resources industry managed and reconfigured? What justifications are mobilised for the mining boom?

CSRER researchers have strength in:

  • Stakeholder mapping: a methodology that analyses how social structures in networks are revealed by communication flows, interactions and the capacity to organise into group action or speak or act with one voice. This in turn affects the ability of the network as a whole to issue (or withhold) a durable and valid collective approval or social license. 
  • Social Media Analysis: social media platforms allow diverse and otherwise dispersed and disparate populations to communicate and organise around issues ranging from political controversies and cultural events to natural disasters. CSRER researchers have developed a range of techniques to gather, track and analyse the data generated from provocative public issues.

3. Work, Technology and Community: Managing Mining

At a global level the demand for energy continues to shape national economies and, in turn, drive significant developments at the regional level. Through new and existing technologies work life is becoming more mobile and flexible with an often corresponding shift of risk in activities and increasing industrialisation of work/life boundaries. Research opportunities that explore the intersections of work, economic and social life as they unfold in regions experiencing transformations in economic activity, particularly resource extraction, are being developed. 

Most notably:

1. Risk management evaluation: How is safety implemented through devices to test workers and make their practices safer? This question relates both to technology and organisational culture. For example:

a) Fatigue control is usually outside company jurisdiction but with the hours of work demanded of these workers there is a spreading of surveillance to include all aspects of Occupational Health and Safety.

b) How are air quality monitoring devices and results regulated and interpreted locally? How are 'facts' about air quality made? That is, how do measurements transcend the circumstances of their production to become hardened and agreed upon?

c) What constitutes a valid water testing regime that also accounts for differing value sets from culturally diverse populations?

2. Accommodating mobile workforces: as with mobile capital workforces are increasingly becoming mobile in both a virtual and geographic sense. Documenting this trend and the implications of this is helpful for planning our cities and regional industries. Key questions include: how are operational workers vs seasonal construction workers managed differently? How does the use of contingent labour, subcontracting practices, the automation of work, and block shifts change work-life balance and the experience of work in this sector? While there is a lot of optimism about the jobs that the mining boom has created, research is required to unpack the nature and unique demands of these kinds of jobs within the larger framework of emerging flexibility oriented, individualised and rationalised performance based employment arrangements.

3. Governing work camps: Effective governance of labour and work camps is not just about institutionalising regulation and safety mechanisms and it is more than simply reproducing procedural rules and behavioural modification. It is about creating a culture of reflective governance among workers based on self regulated codes of conduct with the camps themselves and the effects on local communities. Critical issues around how governance of work camps in the resources sector actually occurs has yet to be exposed to rigorous scientific analysis.  How are camps managed spatially to ensure social norms can be maintained and enforced appropriately? How are smaller towns transformed when mining investment booms? How are relationships between the rotational and operational workforce residing in work camps and neighbouring local communities formed and maintained?

4. "The Making of Climate Publics"

Outcomes include:

  • Better grasp how information about an issue flows between groups than standard media monitoring methods
  • Evaluate current public communication strategies and devise complementary risk mitigation strategies
  • Powerful combination of visualization techniques and cutting edge social science methods to map and evaluate community engagement and issue concerns

This stream of research connects two cutting edge areas of social research: the first concerns issue visualization and mapping, that is how can public responses to controversies and issues be understood in graphical form in order to understand how information is brokered and transferred. The second concerns the role of everyday practices and habits in stimulating controversy.

Recent work in Sociology has reconsidered the role of information dissemination in opinion formation about environmental issues. Authors such as Elizabeth Shove (2007) and Kersty Hobson (2006) have pointed out that a predominant format for energy awareness campaigns, that of providing environmental information so that people will change their behaviour, is based on a rationalistic and individualistic model of environmental change. According to Shove (2007) the informatic approach does not do justice to the practical constraints people face in going about their everyday life. Publicity campaigns based on information about science wrongly assume that energy awareness can be changed by informing individuals about its environmentally damaging effects. Such an approach namely leaves out of consideration the 'praxio-logics' of energy use in the home, the social, infrastructural, material conditions that people have to negotiate in organising life. The term 'praxio-logics' highlights the ways the habits of everyday life inform the opinions of social groups about energy and environmental issues. Thus, rather than information altering behaviour, this approach highlights the ways behaviours constrain or enable certain messages to be disseminated. As Noortje Marres states,

"Insofar as such awareness devices help to enact a public that is physically implicated in collective issues, the forces of conviction, realization, and engagement are unlikely to be exerted by information alone. The socio-material sites that people dwell in equally may play a part in this." (Marres 2008)

With carbon storage, especially in deep geological formations underground, both the technology and publicity device of the science enables the virtualisation, that is, the 'de-materialisation', of environmental issues. The 'virtualisation' of material technologies is a pre-requisite for many 'engagement' devices and awareness instruments like carbon calculators which format public involvement with climate change as abstract measure of CO2 emissions. Virtualisation subsumes references to rather more concrete instantiations of the issue experienced in everyday life. These experiences include droughts, storms, floods and their effects on human and non-human habitats. Such informational practices can be seen as preparing the entry of people into the calculative universe of carbon accounting and carbon accountability. The staging of climate policy awareness campaigns are very much like a light switch operation, such events, prove able to switch on a material public at will, but only for some moments. The net effect is the reduction of citizenship to consumerism and the obscuring of the place of habits and technologies in political participation.

Science, Economics and Democracy in the CSG controversy

It's no coincidence that industrial fossil fuel extraction and modern democratic politics emerged together. According to Mitchell (2009, 2011) carbon energy and modern democratic politics are intrinsically tied together. Fossil fuels are the 'buried sunshine' that makes contemporary social and political life. His book 'Carbon Democracy' traces the ways concentration and control of energy flows have opened and closed democratic possibilities. Mitchell explores the intersecting histories of social, oil and democracy in the twentieth century by following closely the methods of production, distribution and conversion of fossil fuels into other forms of socio-technical organisation, financial circulation and political power.

The prospect of introducing coal seam gas (CSG) as an energy resource in Australia has occurred alongside vocal opposition and public protest. Understanding the nature of this public controversy requires the consideration of how discursive and ideological dimensions of local environmental conflicts are mutually constructed in the scientific and political assemblages of socio-technical innovations.
Building on the work of Mitchell this research will look at the democratic machineries that attempt to propel and prevent the introduction of the CSG industry in Gloucester. Whilst Mitchell describes, in retrospect, the specific relations of democracy as a result of the way oil is extracted, processed, shipped and consumed; this work will focus on the formation stage. The sites of contestation, emblematic of alternative democratic practices and actualities, will be the focus of this research. These include site specification, techniques of exploration, 'public engagement', the environmental assessment and approval process.

The aim of this research is to explore how democracy is carried out in practice and how science and politics are actively shaped and contested by various human and non-human actors. Using insights from ANT the research will explore the coproduction of two interconnected issues. First, the extent to which subsurface monitoring technologies (the production of scientific models and data) are mobilised by opponents and proponents of the CSG industry. Second, to critically reflect on concepts of community and democracy; particularly the respective roles of lay and expert knowledges. How are entanglements between science and politics to be conceptualised within liberal democracies? To what extent are 'publics' to be involved in decision making? Should this involvement be considered active influence in technoscientific matters; or more broadly as participation in formulating alternative futures of economic, ecological, social and political matters?

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