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Institution of Civil Engineers - National Needs Assessment

The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) has launched a Call for Evidence as part of their National Needs Assessment initiative. The aim is to produce a cross-sector assessment of the UK's national economic infrastructure needs up to 2050 and to identify options for how they can be met. Details of the Call for Evidence can be found on the ICE website. The submission produced by the Geological Society can be found below:

Submitted 29 February 2016

1. The Geological Society (GSL) is the UK’s learned and professional body for geoscience, with about 12,000 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and government with a broad range of perspectives on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies, those in education, and other non-technical audiences. We have not answered all the questions set out in the call for evidence but instead focussed on areas where the geological community has an important contribution to make.

Do you agree with our proposed vision and outcomes? What amendments would you propose?

2. We agree with the high level aims of the proposed framework. Many of the deliverables derived from this framework fall outside of our area of expertise. However, there are a number of important aspects of infrastructure needs where geoscience expertise will be crucial to their effective design, planning and implementation. Below we focus on some areas worthy of greater focus where our community is well placed to help, and where GSL would be pleased to help broker partnerships and interdisciplinary working.

What will be the main drivers of demand for UK national economic infrastructure over the next 35 years that we should consider in our assessment? 

3. There are a number of drivers both now and in the future that will contribute to decisions made on infrastructure projects, some of which will require the technical expertise of the geoscience community. Important, cross-boundary issues such as environmental change, sustainable use of resources, sustainable management of the environment including non run-off flooding and groundwater management all have a bearing on current and future generations and must feed into the planning and implementation of critical infrastructure projects. Such issues will be important in the development of infrastructure that directly address these issues (such as carbon capture and storage) as well as underwriting the planning, design and implementation of other projects.

4. As we seek to live more sustainably and equitably on our planet, these types of drivers will become increasingly important at every stage of infrastructure planning and development. Considerations such as the CO2 footprint of a development and its ongoing CO2 running costs will need to be incorporated in addition to sustainable supply of natural resources for construction, and the ongoing environmental and social impact of such usage. These considerations are likely to become more critical in the coming decades as environmental change intensifies and this foresight should be built into the remit of all long-term infrastructure projects.

5. There are a few important drivers and infrastructure projects that we would like to raise here that have components requiring geological expertise. The first is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). This technology and infrastructure has long been discussed as a central part of the UK’s energy policy and mix in order to meet our legally binding 2030 decarbonisation targets and to prevent dangerous climate change. Currently, the government’s policy in this area is hanging in the balance following recent announcements in the comprehensive spending review. CCS continues to have a ‘potentially important’ role in this government’s energy policy, although there is no indication of what would fill its place should it not be delivered at scale by 2030. It is the view of many in the sector, including the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change (ECC) Committee, that it is critical infrastructure for the future of the UK’s energy security and to meeting decarbonisation targets. As the ECC committee have recently heard, if we stick to the 'with gas and without CCS' scenario we will not remain on or near the least cost path to our statutory decarbonisation target. The retraction of the funding allocated to the CCS commercialisation competition damages the relationship between Government and industry. If the government does not come up with a clear strategy very soon, knowledge, investment, assets (including depleted hydrocarbon reservoirs and associated infrastructure which will otherwise soon be commissioned) and expertise in the UK will be lost.

6. CCS requires national and local infrastructure planning to make the most of current capacity. This will require integrated regional and local planning (as detailed in the ‘Vision’) to deliver CO2 to the storage location. In addition to the technology which is now established, the next step is to develop key infrastructure to link the capture sites to transport infrastructure and storage sites in order to demonstrate the technology and delivery chain at scale. As discussed in a recent ECC Committee evidence session with industry representatives, this is the key part of the delivery chain that requires focus and political momentum to move this development forward. CCS will have a high upfront cost. As with many innovation projects, early on the costs are high but this will decrease significantly over time as technology deployment matures and with more infrastructure already in place.

7. CCS falls into an increasing number of areas where there is a challenge around liability for very long-term risk (beyond human lifetimes). Current market and regulatory structures pose a significant deterrent to commercial companies wanting to invest in such initiatives which find themselves facing unknown and very poorly constrained liabilities over timeframes which existing risk strategies cannot easily accommodate. Government is in a unique position to underwrite much of the long-term risk around areas such as CCS development where industry is reticent to undertake such risks, and indeed is not set up to do, to benefit the UK economy as well as meet social and environmental needs. If government could take on such liabilities it could unlock the stall in progress and incentivise investment. We note that the North Sea oil and gas industry of the last half century was not simply the product of uncoordinated commercial entities responding to market forces and emerging knowledge of natural resources – government provided vital stimuli, underwriting and ‘system design’ for elements of the energy system.

8. Another important driver in thinking about future infrastructure requirements is the sustainable use of the subsurface itself as we seek to live sustainably in a world of increasing pressures on space and resources. As the trend of increased urbanisation continues, sustainable use of space, particularly in the subsurface will become increasingly pertinent. The Society held a meeting on this theme last year, which the Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Mark Walport addressed. It explored the dynamic environmental system in the subsurface and the complexity of designing and building physical infrastructure (transport, utilities, building foundations, etc.), including storage facilities for resources (such as energy and water) and waste (such as heat, CO2 and radioactive waste). Subsurface infrastructure is impacted by a range of activity such as tectonic instability, non run-off flooding and rock strength. Design of such infrastructure requires an extensive range of geological expertise, from engineering geology, near surface geophysics and rock mechanics to understanding hydrogeology, contaminated land and groundwater and in the case of radioactive waste disposal, structural geology, geochemistry and biogeochemistry.

9. Sustainable design, planning and implementation of infrastructure will also require an assessment of the building and running costs of the project in terms of natural capital. A more holistic approach to management of the environment and natural capital is going to be required if we are to move towards living sustainably in the coming decades. An often omitted but critical component of natural capital and ecosystem services approaches is a consideration of the abiotic services that support life and the environment such as the prevalent geology, soil types, hydrogeology and subsurface geochemistry. Recognising and understanding the interaction between these and other aspects of environments and ecosystems is vital if such approaches to environmental policy-making and management are to be effective. Inclusion of steps such as setting up a circular economy for waste recycling and sustainable use of resources will be essential. This requires cross-sectoral coordination and changes in policy will be needed to facilitate this type of interconnected industry.

What will be the main constraints on the UK's ability to provide sufficient UK national economic infrastructure assets and services over the period and what solutions or mitigations of those constraints should the UK adopt?

10. The main constraints from a geological perspective in the coming years and decades are around the availability of technical skills and required natural resources. On skills, there is significant documentation available produced by the science policy sector and government bodies such as the migration advisory committee on the skills gap and the lack of available required skills in several areas of geoscience including hydrogeology and geophysics. Availability of skills is affected by a number of government policies, many of which are currently uncertain (in flux or under review) such as immigration; higher education (including tuition fees and support for vocational postgraduate degrees); apprenticeships and diversity and inclusion in education. These areas will continue to impact, whether negatively or positively, on the availability of skills to carry out such infrastructure projects. Continuing uncertainty is highly destabilising and makes long term planning by government, industry and others extremely difficult.

11. Sustainable access to resources is also an important consideration. Infrastructure is inherently resource-dependent and the impacts of access to resources as well as the environmental and social footprints they leave behind are important to consider. Many of the natural resources used in renewable energy technologies such as wind turbines are located and sourced from around the world. These materials can be considered to have inherent ‘material miles’ (akin to ‘food miles’) which affect security of access, cost (and therefore economic viability) and environmental and social impacts. This needs to be incorporated into the design and planning stages. Once completed, the running of any given development will also incur an environmental footprint caused by the incorporation of natural resources. This must also be considered in terms of risk to the environment. For some categories of infrastructure such as waste disposal, including radioactive waste disposal, consideration must be given to material stability over much longer timescales far greater than those of almost all existing manmade physical and social structures.

What nationally significant investments in capacity or changes in policy & regulation should we prioritise to deliver these outcomes and deal with these drivers of demand?

12. As mentioned above, our response covers the areas of infrastructure that relate most directly to geoscience or that require geological skills. In terms of policy, two areas we see as being essential to deliver these outcomes are in the area of energy and skills. Since the announcements made in the last comprehensive spending review, particularly around CCS, it will be important for the Department of Energy and Climate Change to design and consult on an update to the energy policy framework to deliver our legally-binding decarbonisation targets as well as a sustainable, evolving energy mix that can meet usage in a growing population.

13. With regards to developing skills, there is urgent need for a plan, joined up across government, to improve skills capacity in the UK to support many of these essential infrastructure requirements. One area which is particularly critical to the lack of experienced skilled geologists coming through the pipeline is the availability and affordability of MSc programmes in specialist subjects such as hydrogeology and geophysics. These qualifications are often pre-requisites to starting a career in technical fields and they are skills areas in which there are known current shortages in the UK. These programmes are generally of extremely high quality and are few in number, but their viability is under threat because of lack of attention to this essential part of the higher education system by government, and perverse incentives for universities to disinvest in such programmes.

14. Careful thought needs to be given to future development of regulatory frameworks. Sensible stakeholders, whether from industry, environmental organisations, government or elsewhere, should not seek more or less regulation for its own sake. Rather, we think it is more important to drive towards smarter, more effective and efficient regulation. Thorough, evidence-based and well-researched regulation that minimises unintended consequences and unnecessary costs while providing effective environmental, health and social protection should be welcomed by industry, environmental organisations, government, regulators and the wider public alike. Threshold limits and flat ‘one size fits all’ regulatory rule-based structures, of the sort on which the EU Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals (REACH) framework is largely based, can result in both overly cautious and unacceptably lax regulation. As well as the risk of human, environmental and economic damage, this type of poor regulation can impede progress on critical projects.