What is Important to You?



how communities in energy-producing regions prioritize social and environmental outcomes

Decision makers can benefit from community input.

Large energy infrastructure is both necessary and often socially disruptive. Policy decisions are often made based on urgent concerns about one topic, like energy security or climate change, rather than on full consideration of both physical evidence and what communities actually want for the environment and society. One reason is that societal priorities are difficult to gather and measure, particularly given that community opinions vary by place and time. My work focuses on ways to improve decision making, primarily by encouraging the consideration of diverse worldviews and the specific input from affected communities about what is most important.

I work mainly in communities experiencing energy development, whether existing or planned. Right now, I am working in California, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming, USA and Queensland and New South Wales, Australia in communities experiencing solar, coal, natural gas, and oil development. I also use computational tools to look at attitudes expressed about energy resources in fiction and nonfiction. In the coming years, I plan to continue my research in urban settings, where people are usually more removed from energy production, and in settings with non-energy natural resource management needs.

Societal preferences and LCA.

My research focuses on raising the profile of community priorities during energy-focused decision processes, using a framework called life cycle assessment (LCA). Specifically, I claim that LCA is a good framework for considering social and environmental tradeoffs, but affected communities are not given enough attention in the process.

Right now, LCA does not involve significant input from community stakeholders, formally or informally, particularly since many LCAs are conducted using software. When LCA-informed decision processes do enable opportunities for stakeholders to provide input, that input generally occurs after the LCA has been completed.

LCA can be improved by using high quality data specific to the affected community, both related to physical inputs (such as how much water will be used) and societal inputs (such as how important residents feel water savings are).

Incorporation of priorities could also encourage deeper reflection within the research community about which impacts to study, potentially mitigating the tendency to focus heavily on climate change in recent years. Also, making social life cycle assessment rigorous and routine is likely to improve the value of LCA.

I use several methods to measure patterns of social and environmental priorities in communities, with two major goals: first, to understand whether people have patterns of prioritization, and second, to understand whether computer-aided tools can be used to effectively increase the speed and reduce the cost of getting information about community priorities without sacrificing data quality. To do this, I use four methods of collecting the same basic data set (what you find important) to test whether I get similar results from each technique. Namely, I use:

  • Open-ended interviews with nonrandom stakeholders in communities of interest
  • Web- and mail-based surveys with random stakeholders in communities of interest, as defined by zip code or post code of residence
  • Web-based experimental surveys with Amazon Mechanical Turk Workers residing in the United States
  • Text mining analysis of written texts from and about communities of interest