A visit to the Tomakomai CCS project: a social scientist’s take

I am a great believer in interdisciplinarity. Energy and environmental change are complex issues, and lots of ideas and specialisations need to pull together to resolve many of the challenges our society is facing. This, I remind myself, is why I am currently standing in the middle of a building site staring into what appears to be a big hole. None of the research techniques described in Alan Bryman’s Social Research Methods bible necessitate the wearing of a hard hat, so I am a little out of my comfort zone.

However, I feel it is important to be here, if only to understand what the thing I have been working on so intensively for the last three years actually looks like in reality. For underneath the big steel pipe poking out the top of the hole is a well, a well that curves down below our feet and heads on out to the rock structures deep below the sea floor. It is from this innocuous little post that in less than two years’ time one of the world’s pioneering carbon dioxide capture and storage projects will commence.

The location for my first ever sanctioned visit to a construction site is Tomakomai, a port town on Japan’s north island of Hokkaido. I say I am in the ‘town’ of Tomakomai, but in truth I have just spent the best part of half an hour driving here with two members of the Industry and Economy team at Tomakomai City Hall. We are on the south side of a massive deep harbour that cuts inland from the coast, surrounded on three sides by a refinery belonging to Japanese petroleum giant Idemitsu and on the fourth side by the bay below which carbon dioxide is to be injected. Beyond the big tanks of the refinery is the other side of the port, where Tomakomai itself lies. To get to the other side, though, one has to go all the way round the edge of the harbour – four kilometres up and four kilometres back down again. My main interest is public perceptions of CCS, but right now I don’t think there is a single member of ‘the public’ within a three mile radius.

Not that the Japan CCS Company are leaving anything to chance when it comes to garnering societal consent for their project. All there is to see at the project site is the wellhead, an observation well, plots marked out for building the required infrastructure and a few portakabins fused together to make a temporary office, but public and stakeholder engagement is already well underway ahead of the commencement of injection in 2016. Upstairs in the meeting room used to host stakeholders and interested groups of the public, I am given the full grand piano version of the three-dimensional project model, replete with flashing lights and American Public Information Film-accented English voiceover. Information posters line the walls, going from the rationale for CCS in terms of climate change and an energy mix through to the specifics of carbon dioxide and geological storage. One of the guides from the city council tells me they had two hundred people show up to one of their public information events, showing the city’s residents are interested in the project. There has been careful discussion with fishers and offshore stakeholders over how best to implement the project, but no mention of outright opposition in the whole time I was in Tomakomai.

It does not escape my attention, however, that the all-singing-all-dancing model talks for about two minutes on the topic of locations of seismic sensors, explained in a manner the lay public could understand. It also registers on my mind that about ten minutes of my ‘tour’ is spent in the control room where seismic data from the observation wells and sensors comes in in real time. The previous two weeks of fieldwork I did in Fukushima Prefecture illustrated all too well that the relationship between earthquakes and energy infrastructure is still a sensitive and important issue in this country, and Japan CCS’ engagement programme seems to reflect this. What I really like to see is that instead of just saying ‘CCS won’t cause earthquakes or be affected by them’, the message they are putting out is one of ‘we are confident that this will not cause or be affected by seismic activity, but nonetheless have lots of monitoring in place so we will know right away should an earthquake happen’. Based on work I’ve done in Scotland, this taking seriously of ‘worst case’ scenarios and focusing on monitoring is exactly what publics and stakeholders want to hear.

One of the simultaneously best and worst things about being a social scientist is that absolutely everything can and should be part of your field work. When you go somewhere new you never switch off, taking in as much as you can to get a feel for the context within which your research topic is taking place. Tomakomai is clearly an industrial town, one where the inhabitants are familiar and seemingly comfortable with large-scale industrial infrastructure. Across town from the huge Idemitsu refinery is a paper factory, its two giant red-and-white towers puffing out smoke while the machinery below churns out newsprint to be distributed to all of Japan. Somewhere in-between is a plant belonging to the Isuzu car company, making diesel engines to be bolted into trucks and cars, and Toyota have a parts factory just outside the town. It is easy to see how the onshore parts of CCS at least could be perceived as just another part of this industrial landscape.

In fact, industry permeates right down into Tomakomai’s culture. The city is home to Japan’s top ice hockey team, with posters on every street promoting upcoming fixtures and shops selling sticks and skates. Over fifty percent of the Japanese ice hockey players at the last Winter Olympics came from Tomakomai, and the city officers’ business cards have a cartoon ice hockey figure on them. Whilst this is in part due to the cold climate, it has much more to do with the fact the team is bankrolled by one of the city’s biggest industrial players – Oji Paper. The financial backing they provide has turned the Oji Eagles into one of Asia’s biggest teams, acting as a source of pride for everyone in the town. Industry appears to be something Tomakomai residents are actively proud of – pin badges for sale in the tourist information office at the railway station depict Tomachop (a cartoon penguin serving as the town mascot) standing in front of two factory chimneys, and factories and cement mixers feature heavily in Tomakomai’s very own Gangnam Style parody.

All of this translates into a textbook case of favourable past experience with large-scale infrastructure, something Judith Bradbury, Simon Shackley, myself and many others have suggested can be a key factor in public and stakeholder support for new CCS projects. Furthermore, as I stand at the edge of the bay next to the observation well (which has been drilled to a depth of 1,000 metres and constantly relays back all sorts of seismic data), my guides point out a coal-fired power station up the coast, a docking station for oil and gas tankers offshore, and various bits of debris being washed up on the beach.

A plane rumbles overhead on its way from New Chitose Airport to somewhere further south. In this kind of environment, I can easily imagine how sub-seabed carbon dioxide storage could be viewed as just one of many factors with potential to drive change in the marine and coastal environment. Likewise, the three old ladies I meet during my trip collecting seaweed off the tsunami defences (who insist on giving me three rolls of seaweed to take back to Scotland) illustrate perfectly the balance of opportunities and risks the marine environment brings to Tomakomai. Context matters – and in Tomakomai CCS seems to fit well with what the trajectory of what has gone before. This of course does not give one free licence to develop new infrastructure willy-nilly, but it is interesting to think about how something like sub-seabed carbon dioxide storage relates to the many other social and environmental change factors going on in citizens’ daily lives.

Not quite so related to CCS, it is also worth noting that Tomakomai is a place like no other. If this was your first trip to Japan and you had come here straight off the plane with images of Tokyo’s bright lights and Kyoto’s temples in your head, you would be wondering what on earth was going on. With little houses, big wide roads, and cars everywhere, it is more like the Canadian Plains or the north of Scotland than the jam-packed heart of Tokyo. Throughout my stay I was minded very much of what a friend told me once – you of course get treated well everywhere in Japan, but in Hokkaido you are truly welcomed*. The tsunami evacuation speakers are put to good use in the town centre to blast out rock music through the wind-blown streets, and the main thoroughfares come to life at night when the maintenance workers at the Idemitsu refinery knock off for the day. Tomakomai is also looking to the future, though – in addition to the CCS project, massive solar developments are springing up all over the countryside, which to my intrigue appear to have been met with surprisingly little opposition. Heck, you even have a choice of gourmet coffee outlets, thanks to two friends who have recently opened the town’s first artisan cafes at opposite ends of the town.

As we load back into the Toyota people carrier that’s taken us out to the observation well, I reflect that I have learned just as much from coming to Tomakomai, visiting the project site and traveling around the town as I have from the formalised interviews and document analysis I’ve done. I might not (yet) be able to ask what kinds of amines are being used, how wellhead integrity is being monitored, and what happens to the CO2 plumes, but getting out and seeing CCS ‘in action’ has done my thinking the world of good. It’s something I would recommend every social scientist working on CCS does once in a while.

(*this, I discovered, applies very much to Fukushima Prefecture as well!)

Leslie Mabon is currently undertaking research into communicating uncertainty around energy in marine environments on a Japan Foundation Fellowship. You can read about his other work – including radiation monitoring in Fukushima Prefecutre and education for sustainable development at Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology – on his personal blog energyvalues.wordpress.com