A proposal by the electric operator Duke Energy to site a combined heat and power facility on the Duke University campus became a teachable moment for 10 Duke students in a course on the ethical dimensions of environmental policy. The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ Kay Jowers, led the course David Toole who holds joint appointments in the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Duke Global Health Institute, and the Duke Divinity School. They saw a ready-made case study of the influence on policy of assumptions about how things should or ought to be in the university’s process for considering the proposal.

“We weren’t looking to have the students weigh in on a decision on the proposed plant so much as help them engage with a real-time decision-making process in order to assess the underlying commitments and assumptions of its participants,” said Jowers.

That effort involved social science, philosophy, and even theology, along with data collection. In particular, it trip included a trip to a hog farm so the students could learn how it makes biogas, one potential fuel source for Duke Energy’s proposed 21-megawatt plant.

To learn how biogas production might affect nearby residents and how stakeholders perceived many other aspects of the proposed plant, the ethics students conducted interviews with four small focus groups.

“I was shocked to learn how drastically differently each group viewed stakeholder engagement in the decision-making process,” said Elizabeth Allen, a rising junior studying environmental science and policy who facilitated the interview with local community members and sat in on her classmates’ interview of university administrators.

Allen said she began the course with a “theoretical understanding of environmental justice and stakeholder engagement” and left it awakened to the reality that “there are no ideal solutions. At the end of the day, decisions must be made—and these decisions will never make everyone happy,” a reference to varying perceptions about the benefits and costs of the project, now delayed indefinitely as the university focuses its attention on expanding opportunities to use environmentally friendly fuels to advance its goal of carbon neutrality by 2024.

In a final report compiled by the students that will be submitted to focus group participants, the students detail those perceptions. But the main audience for the just-out report is Duke administrators.

“The report recommends communication improvement strategies for engaging stakeholders,” Jowers said. “It supports open engagement with community stakeholders, accountability to the environment and the community, and transparency and inclusiveness.”

Allen said getting her head around a real-world issue with environmental justice components was what she was after and what the ethics and environmental policy course provided.

“It helped me think about the gray areas of decision making, tradeoffs, and stakeholder engagement,” Allen said. “I came out with a more nuanced understanding of how real-world decisions are made, which will help me when I am working to advocate for or change decisions being made.”

Originally posted on the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions’ website

Work was supported by The Issachar Fund. Images courtesy of Matthew Nash and Ruxandra Popovici.