Implement an economy-wide carbon tax, attain “social licence,” score a federal approval for the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline.
But for some, the Alberta NDP’s rhetoric represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the point of social licence, with the government assuming that moderate emissions reduction policies allows it to ignore serious concerns about Indigenous rights and international climate commitments.
“It’s a bizarre idea,” says Imre Szeman, Canada Research Chair in Cultural Studies and co-director of the Petrocultures Research Cluster at the University of Alberta.
“It’s like saying: ‘if I’m good to my neighbour then I can engage in some petty theft of the corner store.’ As opposed to saying: ‘Being good to my neighbour and the environment just means that I’ve learned how to start to do that on an ongoing basis.’ It doesn’t open up the possibility for something else.”
Social Licence Responds to Perceived Flaws in Regulators
The concept of “social licence to operate” was birthed out of the mining sector in the late 1990s.
Jennifer Winter, director of energy and environmental policy at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, says the idea made sense in that particular context, with companies attempting to engage the immediate community with partnerships, Impact and Benefit Agreements (IBAs) and local hiring preferences.
However, Winter notes there’s never been a clear articulation of what social licence even is.
“It’s like any other buzzword,” she says. “It sounds good and you think it has meaning. But what is it? Who grants this licence?”
Szeman agrees that the definition of social licence is indeed murky. But unlike Winter — who suggests the discussion “definitely hasn’t helped in terms of people thinking of the NEB as an effective and neutral regulator” — he says he’s “very glad” that it’s being talked about and that it helpfully attempts to broaden the onus of responsibility beyond what agencies and boards currently require from companies.
“I think it’s this kind of sense that ‘is this a kind of enterprise that is a legitimate one in today’s world given the challenges that the entire society is facing, whether or not our legal description has caught up to it?’,” says Szeman, adding that the Alberta NDP is “abusing the concept” by detaching it from such roots.
‘It’s A Real Stretch For Governments to Claim to Grant Social Licence’
As opposed to corporate social responsibility — which is largely assessed and reported on by the company itself via annual reports and sizable marketing teams — the idea of social licence has been claimed by communities as a pressure point to make up for perceived deficiencies in consultations and environmental assessments conducted by governments and corporations.
Fiona MacPhail and Paul Bowles, both economics professors at the University of Northern British Columbia who were collaboratively interviewed via e-mail, noted that many communities have “co-opted” the term for their own purposes as opposed to the typical co-optation by industry and governments of terms like “empowerment” and “participation.”
“Seeing this, governments are entering the debate too and trying to use the language to support their aims, in this case by arguing that oil pipelines have social licence if they are accompanied by a carbon tax and climate change targets,” they write.
“It’s a real stretch for governments to claim to grant social licence [to themselves] since it’s their failure to ensure that the ‘political licences’ which they grant to resource firms have legitimacy that spurred the move to social licence in the first place.”
Over Half of Canadians Have Little to No Confidence in the National Energy Board
This notion is especially true in the context of pipelines, which cross many jurisdictions that have distinct interests and concerns (including spills, tanker traffic and greenhouse gas emissions, all of which can result in problems far beyond the scope of provincial or national boundaries).
For instance, what does consent look like when a pipeline crosses dozens of First Nations, municipalities and tracts of private land? Is gaining an “approval” from 51 per cent of impacted citizens enough?
Winter argues that the job of regulators like the National Energy Board (NEB) and Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) isn’t to decide if every person and community is better off by having a pipeline, but if “Canada as a whole is better off.”
This perspective is echoed in the rhetoric of a unitary “Canadian public interest” that the NEB uses to describe its own responsibilities, as well as Notley’s submission to the NEB in support of Kinder Morgan’s proposal: “This important pipeline infrastructure will support an integrated energy economy in Canada that will be more attractive to investors, which in turn will generate more economic activity Canada-wide.”
But Szeman suggests that such nationalistic rhetoric is no longer sufficient.
“I find it very interesting the degree to which quite a large segment of the Canadian public don’t find the claims made on behalf of pipeline projects to have the proper amount of legitimacy,” he says. “Not because they don’t understand that it might lead to jobs and profits, but because they don’t buy the long-standing argument that the thing that matters above all else is jobs and profits.”
Commitments to Indigenous Rights and Climate Targets Currently Ignored
If the responsibilities and actions of the NEB and CEAA reflected an acknowledgement of the inability for Canada to both build new pipelines and meet international climate commitments, for instance, then perhaps it would be a different story.
Or if projects only proceeded with the guarantee of “free, prior and informed consent” as outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), then social licence might “not exist” as many conservative commentators insist.
But the overhaul of the NEB and CEAA hasn’t been completed in time to impact the review of the new Kinder Morgan pipeline, contradicting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pledge during the federal election to the Dogwood Institute’s Kai Nagata.
The project is still opposed by the mayors of Vancouver and Burnaby, the chief of Tsleil-Waututh Nation and the Treaty Alliance Against Tarsands Expansion, which features more than 50 signatories. On Oct. 24, 99 people received trespassing citations outside Parliament Hill while protesting the Kinder Morgan expansion; two weeks later, 15 people occupied the constituency office of Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr for the same reason.
Alberta’s climate plan and Canada’s review of its environmental assessment process hasn’t done nearly enough to satisfy concerns about new pipelines that will allow for the further expansion of the oilsands.
But as indicated in Notley’s Oct. 3 speech, the Alberta NDP seems to assume that the battle for hearts and minds has been concluded, and that social licence has been attained.
Winter says there’s a lot banked on that assumption.
“I think it would be really politically costly for the Alberta NDP if the federal government decides not to approve Trans Mountain,” she says. “The issue is that I’m not convinced that Alberta implementing a carbon tax is really going to change opinions on whether or not the oilsands are bad. I don’t think that moving to a broad-based carbon tax really buys that much more.”
Image: Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. Photo: Premier of Alberta via Flickr