Iceland’s environment ministry has just held a symposium on social impacts of energy projects in Iceland, in particular in relation to new power plants envisaged as part of the 4th Master Plan for Nature Protection and Energy Utilization. Key speakers were a couple now living in the Netherlands: an academic from the University of Gröningen, Frank Vanclay, and his practitioner wife, Ana-Maria Esteves, who works with the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA).
Much of the symposium was related to social environmental assessment itself, irrespective of country. So for instance when a fracking project is announced, there might be impacts from vehicle noise of various types, exhaust fumes, increased accident risk, injury or even death, costs of road repair from increased traffic, and changing character of the town (less peaceful, etc.). These are balanced by the potential for local income from spending by drivers, plus other services for drivers.
Everything is social, Frank said: landscape analysis; archeological and heritage impacts; community, cultural and linguistic impacts; demographic and economic impacts; gender issues; health and psychological impacts; political issues such as human rights; resource issues, and indigenous issues. Social impacts depend on project characteristics, as well as characteristics of the community, individuals and any proposed mitigation. Impacts cannot be measured in advance, but social impacts should be done before environmental impacts. Speculation starts as soon as there is even a rumour of a proposed development, he says. If there is no consensus, projects should not proceed.
As an activist, I found his slide on the different types of protest interesting.
Ana said that “the purpose of benefit-sharing is to retain part of a project’s economic benefits in the region where the project is located”. These may be voluntary or non-voluntary, monetary or non-monetary. Who decides, who distributes, who benefits? And how do people perceive negative aspects?
The Icelanders who spoke brought up local issues. Birna Björk Árnadóttir from the Planning Agency brought up the case of a proposed hydropower plant, Hvalár, in an isolated region of northwest Iceland where people have been divided into two factions: proponents (mainly locals) who say “this is our project, let us decide” and opponents, who say “to whom do the fjords belong”?
In line with some of what Ana said earlier in the symposium, developers of this project have promised various benefits for the local villagers.
In terms of social impact assessments for power plants, the following should be covered: access to electricity and electrical safety, population changes, land use, employment, property value, fringe benefits and perks, public health, cultural heritage, and tourism and recreation. Employment weighs heavily in the assessments, whereas tourism and recreation are usually the most-researched factors.
In Iceland, social impact assessment has only been carried out with large projects such as construction of the dam and aluminium plant in East Iceland. Given the proximity of the currently non-operating silicon metal smelter in Helguvik, south-west Iceland, to local communities, it would have been better if a social impact assessment had been carried out there first. Stakksberg, the company set up by Arion Bank to see to the amendments and potential sale of the smelter, could still decide to carry out a social impact assessment for the project – but I doubt they will.