South Stream: Where is the Starting Point?
As part of last year's Gas Dialogues series South Stream: the Evolution of a Pipeline, a series of events intended to put the spotlight on the South Stream pipeline and what it would mean for Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovenia and Italy, research and strategy consultancy WorldThinks was brought in to poll the views of the public and key stakeholders in each country on the potential impact it would have transiting through each of them. The results of each specific survey were shared at each of the Gas Dialogues' events.
Of how the surveys were initiated, WorldThinks' Founding Director Viki Cooke recalls, “It was the need to have something that was credible, based on a reasonable sample size but was also insightful, so what we recommended was a combination of a quantitative survey with members of the public, supported by in-depth interviews with key stakeholders drawn from key spheres of influence.”
WorldThinks' research sampled 500 respondents in each of the five countries surveyed on South Stream, she says. “Then, we supported that with 10-12 telephone interviews with experts from academia, business, civil service, the environment world, politicians and think tanks.”
Finally, a report of survey findings was released in each country, says Ms. Cooke, who presented a summary of those findings at the final Gas Dialogues event last December in the European Parliament in Brussels.
The surveys showed there is basically support for South Stream, she says.
The potential beneficial effects of South Stream were apparent to survey respondents, “not just in terms of gas that they will get as a result of it, but things like job creation, helping the economy. People are still very worried about the future, so I think that the connection between the opportunity afforded by the development and management of the pipeline and some of the societal issues is really an important one.
“Also, we found in the markets we were working in there was a considerable level of support for South Stream – not everyone, particularly amongst members of the public there were different levels of understanding and awareness. But by and large, particularly as we went through the interview and people knew a bit more about it, there was generally support for it because I think even the public believe that it will lead to better energy security, lower prices for consumers,” she explains.
Given that the Russian government and Gazprom are very involved in South Stream, Ms. Cooke says there were questions and concerns regarding that. “So I think that one of the key things is, this is a partnership in terms of delivery through each country and I think people are looking to see the nature and kind of detail of the contract that's drawn up and to what extent it will benefit their local country, the building of the pipeline, transition taxes, etc.
“One of the conclusions we drew, is that in order for people to trust South Stream, continue to support it and have that support grow there needs to be very clear communication about who's responsible for it, what the nature of the relationship is,” she explains.
The project, she says, is as much about trust in local governments as it is about trust in the consortium.
“I was surprised that people weren't particularly fearful of the risks associated with a pipeline going through their country,” she remarks, “and I think one might have imagined that the public might be anxious about an enormous pipeline running across their country and potential terrorist risks or accident risks.”
That was a relatively low level of concern, she says.
She also cites the varying levels of trust as particularly interesting for her, particularly towards the EU. “Broadly speaking, the further away a country is from Brussels, the less trust there is, which is probably about lack of familiarity. So I think there are some challenges for the EU in terms of how it positions itself in relation to projects like this.”
Ms. Cooke says the survey has provided a baseline as to where people are at at the moment. “This was more to help, I think, shape the kind of starting position so that people can think about how they communicate, how they negotiate. I think there were some quite clear signs and signals in terms of the best way to take this forward in terms of what kinds of communications need to be shared, what kind of questions the public need answering, what kind of questions the stakeholders need answering.
“It is more in the context of a fair degree of skepticism, frankly with some quite big questions about the Russians' relationship with perceptions of the Russian government, and there is quite a fear that it ultimately can be about Russian power and influence,” she offers.
Moreover, she notes the results show a lot of support for natural gas in the energy mix - somewhere in the middle of the spectrum (with renewables topping the ranking). “People see natural gas as something that's much more acceptable than coal, oil and nuclear. It also connects to the sentiment that gas is a good fuel: it's clean,” she adds.
WorldThinks cooperated with local partners on the South Stream polling, as the research needed to be done in local languages. Viki Cooke says some survey participants had to be reassured that they were participating in a real survey. The consultancy went into the project without any preconceived ideas about what the outcome of the survey would be.
She says, “It's our role to try and understand in as an objective way as possible what prevailing opinion is and then to report that honestly and accurately. We never felt pressure to skew the results, nor did anyone suggest that.
“In some if not all of the markets we said some things that were quite challenging for people to hear – particularly, trust in organizations that were involved, the potential risks of corruption, the potential abuse of power. We were able to be pretty forthright about that.”
In the context of survey research being used for energy projects, she says WorldThinks does a lot of work in the energy sector for a host of clients, companies involved in up and downstream energy, but also work for regulators, for example regarding smart meter delivery in the UK or for unconventional gas explorer Cuadrilla Resources.
“I think one of the reasons people are interested in finding out public opinion, particularly for a project like this, is understanding what the starting point is,” says Ms. Cooke, “so that people can help shape their communications and engagement strategy and public affairs strategy to meet the needs, concerns, ambitions of the public and stakeholders.”