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Carbon Removal Governance: Lessons from fracking

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By Mark Workman, Miriam Aczel, Stephen Hall

· 5 min read

Lessons from Fracking: The need for dedicated CDR governance and regulation incorporating an anticipatory approach - one which is inclusive, proactive and innovative.

In a series of previous blogs, we highlighted the extent to which the UK carbon removal sector needed to develop and scale by orders of magnitude - as well as the need to bring society together to manage amongst other issues the potential for market transition risk.

This process of carbon removal - also known as negative emissions - is an essential part of achieving net zero and eventually net negative emissions, both to offset the most persistent remaining emissions, and eventually to bring back down the concentration of CO2 in the air to more sustainable levels.

In a paper published last week colleagues explored how the technology and processes associated with fracking for the production of shale gas were introduced to the UK 10 years ago. We analysed lessons relevant to the establishment and governance of CDR in the coming decades. Fracking was `rolled-out’ in the Lancashire region in a top down manner, by-passing the communities where the technology would be deployed in any decision making role or even input, and chose to retro-fit existing conventional oil and gas regulatory mechanisms to the new technology. The UK’s favourable shale gas potential started to be explored by Cuadrilla Resources in 2011 but earth tremors halted exploration on multiple occasions whilst these were investigated. With limited community engagement, poor transparency and a breakdown in trust increased local opposition and resulted in Cuadrilla abandoning its plans in February 2022.

This has important lessons as a function of the speed with which CDR needs to be deployed. In the UK, it will be a new set of never-been-deployed technologies which will make up an infrastructure sector the size of the water industry in 28 years. At such a scale it will have to be retrofitted into existing communities and networks. This will invariably open up a whole set of intricate, subtle and complex issues - such as a fragmented regulatory landscape, local cultures and multi-sectoral practices, some of which will likely be conflicting. CDR’s impacts and governance processes will be uncertain, untested and highly emergent.

The work that we have been undertaking at the Carbon Removal Centre has emphasised that the UK needs to build a high integrity carbon removal sector from the bottom up - in a way in which all voices are heard, and the results benefit everyone. This will enable the technical development of CDR systems and their associated value chains to co-evolve with socio-political aspects, to create the appropriate enabling environment for CDR to diffuse and scale. So how do you develop an effective approach for new technologies such as CDR to deliver social acceptance based on building and retaining public trust?

The paper advocates two underpinning tenets. The first is the adherence to the Aarhus Convention (UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision Making, and Access to Justice in Environmental matters) and the good governance principles[1] which, as the table extracted from the research highlights, were not adhered to in Lancashire during the development of fracking. The second is the need to adopt an Anticipatory Regulation approach[2] i.e., develop a future-facing governance framework for CDR. The figure below from Nesta’s work on this topic identifies three different roles for the regulator, based on the appropriateness of existing regulation for the management of new technologies. These include an:

  • Advisory role, where new products are introduced and need testing against existing regulations. While the product may be new, its impacts are expected to be short-term with fewer uncertainties.
  • Adaptive approaches are appropriate when the regulatory bodies hope to encourage development of new products, but existing regulatory frameworks need adaptation.
  • For technologies that are still in development or emergent, and their potential longer-term impacts more substantive, an anticipatory role is proposed. Here existing regulatory frameworks become harder to apply as the impacts are either unknown, or there is incomplete evidence. Rather than the regulator acting as a gatekeeper to innovation by ensuring adherence to regulatory requirements, with supply and demand characteristics (i.e., where market service and needs gaps in existing regulatory constructs - the demand - are identified by innovators who then supply the value proposition which is vetted by the regulator) - the anticipatory approach to regulation is based on flexible and iterative co-development and partnership between regulators, policymakers and innovators.

The research found that the current governance frameworks make little provision for engaging stakeholders in the planning and development of CDR. The table below describes the key elements critical for developing Anticipatory Regulation and their compliance with the Aarhus Convention and good governance principles, and highlights the lessons drawn from the experience with fracking relevant to GGR regulation.


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The study therefore emphasises a number of lessons for the development of CDR in the UK:

  • The need for specific governance to be generated for CDR rather than retro-fitting existing mechanisms;
  • Where new technologies or practices are deployed, such as fracking and CDR, the knowledge and understanding of the impacts - a fundamental principle of good governance - may be less certain or more contested;
  • To gain social acceptance at the local level, deployment of CDR technologies needs to be evaluated from a variety of framings and viewpoints;
  • Early inclusion and participation of local communities would allow issues of concern to inform how trials are undertaken and regulation designed. This anticipatory and participatory approach fits with the principles of good governance and procedural justice, which can help build the trust needed to ensure social legitimacy leading to development and implementation of technological innovations.

In the UK much of the individual components of anticipatory regulation is already happening but it needs to be brought together - see this link[3] - and the cultural hardwiring of embedding anticipatory constructs and principles of good governance will be fundamental by all leaders in all aspects of governance.

This won’t be easy: reality is messy, and the task is daunting. But bringing different actors together around shared societal goals is a crucial step.

Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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