Carbon Capture – but with a difference

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Occidental Petroleum (Houston USA) has released plans disclosing the company’s intention to construct the world’s largest direct air capture facility in Texas oil.  What makes this investment stand out to Leading Green is the fact that it will be in partnership with Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company backed by Bill Gates.

Unlike other forms of carbon capture technology for carbon storage which I have worked on in the UK, this claims to extract CO2 directly from the environment.  The technology claims to capture CO2 from atmospheric air, converting it into a purified form for use or storage.  It achieves this within a closed loop system, adding only water and energy, with the output taking the form of a concentrated stream of compressed CO₂ gas.  This captured CO₂ offers a range of potential environmental & chemical opportunities from industrial CO2 use, urea yield boosting, beverage carbonation and food processing, the production of low-carbon liquid fuel, carbon storage with or without enhanced oil or gas recovery.

In this case Occidental Petroleum would use the captured carbon to help pump hard-to-reach oil out of one of Texas’ shale oil field.   I am usually cautious when the words ‘shale gas’ and ‘carbon storage’ are concerned, but in the move towards climate change adaptation there has to be transition points along the graph between high carbon use – low carbon use and zero-carbon technologies.  Industrial & societal transition to a low carbon economy cannot be achieved overnight.   

In this case Occidental Petroleum & Carbon Engineering claim that the plant once on stream will remove over 500,000 tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year – this it is claimed will offset the drilling and eventual burning of the shale oil that will be extracted — potentially bringing the overall operation towards a zero carbon balance in emissions.

What is often ignored in climate adaptation strategies is the requirement not only to significantly cut emissions across various high CO2 sectors, but also to move towards zero/low carbon emissions where it is achievable in partnership with significant carbon capture to remove the CO2 that has (and will be still be) entering the atmosphere.  Increased atmospheric carbon capture through natural or industrial chemical routes will be key to dropping, and dare I say, managing future global temperature rises.

So I wish this project well, as it takes us into new territory and a new way of thinking both about new energy technology but what needs to be achieved where industry and societies seek to continue to exploit fossil fuels and live within carbon-controlled economies.  However, the goal across all components of human life must be negative carbon release. 

The facility is due to be completed in 2023, and I hope that Occidental Petroleum, under its CSR or ESC policies places the environmental impact assessment statement on line for the global climate change community to examine (we expect a very comprehensive and waffle free section on climate change!).  In truth, this technology is still in its early stages.

Here at Leading Green we hope it is a success and that it is commercially viable in meeting its zero carbon claims, but it does raise some interesting regulatory & land-use planning questions if the technology proves successful:

  • The willingness of civil councils to actively promote within land planning, zoning and other social regulatory policies the ‘political’ presumption in favour to develop carbon neutral technologies.
  • The technological ability and capacity of environmental regulators, environmental health officers and environmental consultancies to undertake and verify the mass balance carbon calculations that will form the beneficial claims of these plants.
  • The regulatory control to ensure net-zero or net positive C-capture within these plants’ over thier commercial life; and
  • Clarity on other carbon-demanding elements within the technology & plant, its components and feedstocks that back up the claims of carbon neutrality within such a plant’s mass balance if the technology achieves global expansion. 

Climate Change Transition – can you see the changes yet?

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Climate Change transition can be hard to identify within the operational investment plans within some oil & gas giants.

At the IAIA 2019 conference in Brisbane last week, several authors delivered papers on current & future oil + gas investment projects and programmes that would be rolled out over the next decade.  The local press was also reporting on new coal investment plans for Queensland, and within a 2-day Leadership in EIA training programme I led with Claire Gronow of Bristol University in Brisbane, several of the course’s experienced EIA participants were employees or IFC/Government officials with oversight of new fossil fuel projects coming through the investment chain. 

Yes, they were all dealing diligently with any environmental & social risks arising on site, but it was hard to define any clear signs of climate change transition or adaptation within the corporate business strategies of their parent companies, or any corporate shift away from fossil fuel exploitation.

This concern has been backed up by analysis from Global Witness in April that identified close to $5 trillion of planned investment in exploration and extraction from new oil & gas fields.  This the authors concluded is incompatible with reaching the world’s climate goals.  The report also concluded that despite rhetoric to the contrary, the oil and gas sector’s future investment plans remain drastically incompatible with limiting climate change.

From recent experience, I concur with these unfortunate conclusions.  If politicians and businesses are increasingly tempted to use the word ‘emergency’ in respect of climate change, there is an obligation on them to demonstrate thier own response and strategic action they are taking to address the ‘emergency’.   As sustainability and IA professionals we are working hard to mitigate the unintended consequences of Man’s exploitation of cheap carbon-based energy and advocating for greater sustainability within business practices. Future climate change transition now requires more than advocacy, it demands action and a strategic shift in the mindset of Governments and Boardroom leaders.  The solutions and advice are out there to be called upon, but action is an individual responsibility.

The Leadership role of the EIA Team Leader

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‘EIA Project Managers focus on project targets and processes, EIA Leaders focus on project outcomes’

I believe this to be one of the fundamental mindsets that leaders in EIA possess, and a factor that helps them move up a tier in the profession.  The right leadership in the environment of today’s project management world is crucial to providing a clear path and vision for attaining organizational as well as sustainability goals. In the EIA and infrastructure development world, it is also about creating agile teams with S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely) goals backed up by effective team management skills to execute desired outcomes effectively and to become more agile in their approach in handling uncertainties within IA and its related assessments.

As a EIA leader you are ultimately measured on one thing — the results that you deliver within the project scope. Given this ultimate measure and its wider importance to local communities and society in general, it is vital that you are outcomes focussed from the start (pun intended!).

So what are the key benefits of being an outcome focussed EIA Team Leader? As I see it there are 5 key benefits.

Benefit 1: Communication

If you are crystal clear what you want and where you want to take the project, issue or project team during the project, it becomes much easier to communicate it to those that you are interacting with or leading. If you can communicate an inspiring vision for the future, you are much more likely to get project managers, engineers and team members to support you in translating this into design options and ultimately reality.

Benefit 2: Time

No one has ‘too much’ time in projects, it is a rare luxury in our or any profession involved in infrastructure and construction. It is how we use that time that makes the critical difference. When you are outcomes focussed, you spend your time on those areas that are likely to leverage the greatest benefits for yourself as a leader, for the EIA and for the wider project.

Benefit 3: Big picture worldview

It is all too easy, especially in times of project challenge to become obsessed with the detail and trivial stuff.  During these periods it is easy to lose sight of the big picture – reducing residual impacts and promoting sustainable development.  Being outcome focussed helps you remember the big picture and what you want to achieve for the project, the project team, for your organisation and for you personally as an advocate of sustainable development.

Benefit 4: Planning

They say that failing to plan is planning to fail. If you are clear about what you want to accomplish, it becomes much easier to plan what you are doing, when you are doing it and how you will achieve it.  When you sit down to work out EIA priorities you can simply ask yourself – ‘will this move me closer to the outcome I want?’.

Benefit 5: Results

EIA Leaders that focus on the outcomes get more done and as a result deliver better EIA outcomes for society. As you achieve one result, it will act as a reinforcement and motivation to achieve more – this helps start and reinforce the leadership cycle within you.

The take away message — Being outcomes focussed can lift your EIA performance and your own brand of EIA leadership to a new level. So start considering the formal and infomal roles that EIA leaders fulfil in projects and what steps can you can personally take to re-focus on outcomes?

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At Leading Green, our approach to environmental leadership mentoring & training encourages our clients to look closely at their own internal leadership strengths and goals.  Helping them adopt an inquisitive state of mind and supporting them in how sustainability can support their long-term business strategy. We run the only EIA leadership course that has been accepted for delivery by the Internation Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) at thier annual conference.

7 Ways to demonstrate Leadership in EIA

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In May 2018, Leading Green held the first of a series of international workshops to discuss Leadership in EIA.  This initial session attended by a series of influential and internationally recognised EIA and SEA practitioners and academics from the UK, South Africa, The Netherlands, Sweden and Estonia, has subsequently become known as the ‘warthog session’ due to the presence of these beasts running under the picnic tables where the session was being held outdoors in Mpila Camp within Hluhluwe iMfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal.

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The initial session, now supplemented by qualitative data from other sessions sought to identify the areas where EIA practitioners could exert the greatest influence on projects, and where their contribution had the greatest impact on the sustainability and residual impact of the future development.  The following 7 areas have subsequently emerged as the focus areas of experienced EIA leaders and what they perceive as the areas of greatest added value to the client and wider engineering/project management team.

1.   Influential in promoting environmentally inclusive design

Regarded as the No.1 contribution repeatedly within these sessions, the promotion of inclusive environment design seeks to raise awareness of, and to emphasis the benefits of, to the project’s decision makers about the importance of designing infrastructure or large development project  that seek to meet the needs of the people and the environments that they inhabit.  A belief that many held central if we are to create a fair society and have any chance of a sustainable future.

“Designing developments to fit their receiving environments, rather than retrofitting environments to take development”

The crucial EIA leadership skills to these are: internal and external stakeholder consultation, influencing skills, visioning, ecosystem service analysis, with a technical understanding of engineering design and investment risk benefit analysis.

2.  Embedding sustainability /Environmental/Social Impact thinking into the project team’s decision-making

By acting early to exert influence within the project’s leadership group, it is clear that many experienced EIA practitioners seek to enable all members to participate in and solve the likely impacts of development, and offer up their insights into ‘How’ the project will interact with the receiving environment.  They recognise the important role that engineering forms as an interface between the design (i.e., the idea how to provide a  solution to a technical problem) and implementation of a sustainable option that forms an optimal solution to all members of the team and their respective interests.

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Promoting Sustainability Approaches in Engineering

  • Helps the team considers the whole ‘system’ in which the development will operate, rather than just considering the object (ie road) or process (oil refinery);
  • Places on the project table options that consider both technical and non-technical issues synergistically, as opposed to just on technical issues;
  • Raises awareness of how the development could address wider sustainability issues or problems (globally and locally) rather than solving the immediate problem (flood risk);
  • Considers the local ecosystem services and community context, as opposed to just addressing the engineering context (i.e. crossing a river);
  • Instills within the decision-making team an acknowledgement that they have a responsibility and accountability to address/implement more sustainable solutions, rather than assuming it is the role of the client or regulators

The crucial EIA leadership skills is through communication approaches based upon a sound sustainability mindset that allowed them to creates new opportunities, to deploy creative (visioning) and problem solving skills within the project leadership team as a proactive as opposed to reactive approach early within the team’s establishment, as well as dealing with challenge.

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3  Holds courageous conversations when EIA elements are impacted on

Ultimately the purpose of EIA is to bring to the decision-maker attention issues of environmental or social significance attached to the proposed development if consented.  In most models of global EIA this statutory responsibility lies with the consenting or approving regulator.  Experienced EIA professionals fully recognise that if these facts are left to such a late end point, the process is valueless.  Instead they seek to raise the issue as early as possible and to often place them in terms of opportunity to avoid, reduce or remediate the impact or its ‘show stopper’ potential.

As has been stated in an earlier blog.  The EIA budget is often a small element of the entire budget – <0.25% during financing and <4% during construction delivery, yet its contribution is ultimately critical to success:

  • No statutory approval – No Project!
  • If the project is pushed through by governments for political reasons, the objection of its citizenry and the verification of adverse environmental impact can still terminate the project on appeal.
  • Even when they are pushed through regardless, the life and efficacy of the asset can ultimately be compromised – e.g. siltation behind dams, reducing energy production, secondary impacts to other national industries and interests, reductions in agricultural productivity, etc can all mitigate against the ROI.
  • Too Climate change adverse – Future stranded asset!

It can be difficult for individuals working closely in a project team environment to go against the ‘group think’ mindset, as no one wants to be the bearer of bad news, or risk project success.  Project groups are also adverse to hearing news that threatens the agreed design that has been proposed and costed for the client, or the introduction of potential time delays, risks or added stakeholder objections.   The EIA leadership professionals talked openly about how they often had to raise and lead on difficult project centred conversations on issues that impacted on wider social, environmental or sustainability issues.  Issues that on occasion other project team members did not wish to consider or raise up to the client.  They knew that they needed to have it, that what they had to say need to be said, and they knew that they were taking a risk at times in their relationship with other senior project team members we.  In mitigation they sought to use emotional intelligence and situational awareness to prepare, assess and gauge what the reactions might be and how these conversations could end.

The crucial EIA leadership skill was communication, in particular being assertive in their message, ensuring that they were focused (ie clear on what they were trying to achieve) by holding the conversation, and what gave them the leadership right to initiate the conversation.  These required preliminary preparation, making sure that their information was accurate and backed up by fact.  They are prepared to discuss the “undiscussable” or ‘disloyal’ but also clear about how the issue effected them personally, the work that they were responsible for delivering and how the issue if unaddressed would impact ultimately on.   Many were fully aware of the Emotional Intelligence skills that were needed to manage relationship conflict and used these accordingly – they were raising the issue because they couldn’t deal with the problem alone, it needed a group approach, the issue was too big for it to be ‘parked’ and left.  They also understood the emotional reactions that such a conversations could result in and tried to prepare accordingly to handle the expected push back, challenge and alternate perspectives..

4.  They ensure that the voices of the EIA team are heard

In addition to often managing the EIA team and ensuring the agreed deliverables outlined in contracts, many are pro-active in ensuring that the team is well-integrated into the project team’s other disciplines.  This often undertaking a systems based approach to the anticipated environmental and social impacts and aligning them with particular disciplines and arranging for the EIA and the respective engineering / design / procurement specialists worked together on the issue to resolve matters.

They also acted as a ‘direct voice’ into the senior project team to ensure that issues were raised and addressed (see above).  They all clearly understood the linkage between leadership and leading a team, as opposed to managing the EIA process often practising strong negotiation, assertiveness and problem solving skills.

5.  Safeguarding stakeholder interests

Stakeholder consultation in EIA is often regarded as a time-consuming ‘cost’ in infrastructure development, with pressure placed on EIA project managers to limit activity to a minimum.  Its value was fully appreciated by many of the experienced client-employed or consultant EIA leaders as a valuable risk management tool and essential in addressing and avoiding potential risks early in the design process.  Utilised as a design tool as well as a statutory obligation it was deemed cost beneficial to the project by reducing delay, re-design, loss of stakeholder confidence.

Most considered in some form an external  stakeholder management or consultation strategy to increase the support and minimize the negative impacts of these community, environmental or governmental stakeholders.  A successful stakeholder management or consultation strategy when carefully planned and followed accordingly was strongly believed to identify issues early, address concerns through transparent action by the design team, raise confidence in the projects communications and build stronger working relationships with external parties.  Anticipating issues in advance of the proposed design allowed for adaptive management, mitigation, access to critical views and information available locally and allowed discussion regarding trade offs.

Few however had considered the benefits of developing an internally focussed stakeholder strategy aimed at the client organisation, seeking to directly consult  with the Client Organisation’s Sustainability Manager, CSR or Environmental Director seeking to bring:

  • their input & influence into projects, or
  • or to understand the dynamics within the client organisation’s CSR goals or SDG objectives?

This was surprising as 80% of Project Managers know how their projects align with the company’s business strategy, and is a valuable tool in bringing influence for sustainability, social and environmental policies to the Project table.

The crucial EIA leadership skills often demonstrated revolved around stakeholder management, strategic thinking, communication, and engagement skills

6   Leads thinking regarding operational and decommissioning phases

It can be a risk in project engineering teams that they focus solely on the design and construct phase of a development.  Forgetting or lacking a design brief to consider the operational  and eventual decommissioning phases.

Life cycle analysis is an important component in EIA philosophy and implementation and EIA practitioners often take a systems based approach to considering the wider changes in environmental and social interactions during subsequent downstream phases.  These often include but are not limited to:

  • Utilities.  The material costs of Water, Electric, Natural Gas, etc, and their subsequent efficiency or contribution in respect of the developments carbon footprint and contribution to climate change.
  • Future Operational parameters including maintenance needs, repair and retrofit design accessibility.
  • The environmental and social impacts of eventual demolition or asset disposal, notably in respect of sustainability and the risk of ‘stranded assets’.
  • Pollution remediation systems and their resilience in respect of future statutory developments, energy policy and environmental risk.

The environmental professionals were aware that the Operational phases of a development can be up to 3x the cost of construction, with management costs equating to 60-80% of a development’s life-cycle costs.  Having such a profound impact on a developments financial outlay and environmental life-cycle, many recognised that it was important that operational and environmental management considerations were discussed by the project team during the design phase and before construction designs became fixed.  Increasingly they felt responsibility for leading project group discussions on ways the team could optimize the life-cycle of developments.

Core skills demonstrated and flagged up as essential for success were a sustainability mindset, visioning, appreciative inquiry, facilitation skills and systems thinking.

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7  EIA information influences PM decision-making

Building a strong working relationship with the Project’s Leading project manager was identified by many as an important leadership skill.  It was accepted that the EIA project manager often had a more holistic and wider worldview of how the project integrated within society, communities and their environments.  EIA project managers often worked across a variety of projects during their careers often being intimately involved with a Project Manager who could spend several years overseeing the design and construct of a development project.  This exposed them to a wider range of project scenarios within specific sectors and adaptive approaches.

This made them adapt at spotting potential pitfalls early in the design phases of projects and mentally mapping geo-environmental, social and natural environmental impacts as potential constraints.  However, the skill seemed to lie in:

  • presenting these issues or problems in terms of ‘solutions’ to project managers.
  • identifying non-technological or low tech solutions rather than relying on increased engineering or higher construction costs, whilst recognising their own engineering limits
  • Helping project managers thinking through short-term and long-term impacts
  • Presenting scenarios and the decisions that they would have to make offline and outside the pressure of project review meetings
  • Mentally mapping statutory delay and presenting it is a structured form for reflection and consideration, clearly highlighting the timeframes, gateways or decision nodes which decisions had to be made in respect of adverse social and environmental impacts
  • Alerting the project manager to significant enviro-social impact findings early (supported by sufficient data for verification) and the pro-actively identifying the next possible steps.
  • Help in selecting ‘optimal’ (solves many problems) as opposed to an optimum solution in terms of buildability, cost and even environmentally preferred.

The key leadership skills identified as important were creating positive relationships, building influence, holding leadership conversations, and problem solving.

Conclusion

Remember, that for any EIA scenario you encounter there are always multiple perspectives to the issue, so be empathetic of how other professions and project managers will view the problem.  A key influencing skill is to retain an open and unbiased curiosity about how they see the situation and be aware of how your own worldview with its associated judgments and prejudice may impact on what you observe and how you act.  One of the great strengths of a mature project management team is the diversity of experience, and the different perspective that exist within it.  When seeking to drive greater sustainability in design, better stakeholder relationships, risk adaptation and overall project vision, it is clearly advantageous to appreciate personal and professional decision-making through the eyes of fellow team members, allowing you to take a more focused, strategic and informed decision-making approach to issues of note to the EIA and sustainability agendas.

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Leading Green offer a bespoke series of Leadership in EIA & SEA talks and training courses. Courses that address specific CPD leadership and team development issues. They incorporate the sustainability practitioner goals of the UK’s Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment (IEMA), and the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA). Contact us at http://www.leading-green.com or email ross@leading-green.com to discuss your particular needs.