Ask 100 individuals what ‘social licence’ means to them and you’ll probably get 100 different responses. There is no actual definition because the very concept is based on personal perception. Instead of ‘social licence’ we use laws, processes, and regulations for major decisions.
Decisions about major projects have to be predictable, consistent, and based on fact-based evidence to ensure a fair and equal process for those involved. This type of process is core to democracy where arbitrary and unpredictable decisions should only be found in dictatorships.
Many are of the idea is that ‘social licence’ is somehow required for the construction and development of certain projects. ‘Social licence’ has been a prevalent theme in the ongoing discussion surrounding the approval of pipelines and that approval in relation to the Alberta Climate Leadership Plan. Prime Minister Trudeau said in the statement that Cabinet’s positive decision on the TransMountain and Line 3 pipelines “we could not have approved this project without the leadership of Premier Notley and Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan.”
First off, Kinder Morgan and Enbridge were subject to an incredibly scrutinous process under the independent National Energy Board. This included innumerable consultations, recommendation, and conditions based on the environmental assessment, indigenous interests, socio-economic impacts, lifecycle maintenance and much more. After all that, final approval still rested with the Federal Cabinet who makes their decision based on closed door discussions - a step the Senate Standing Committee on Transport and Communications recommended ending.
On the subject Senator Michael MacDonald said “We believe the government’s ability to overrule the NEB should be restricted… Evidence not politics should dictate how we proceed with pipeline expansion, so we recommend removing the government in council’s final approval of pipeline projects.”
In his announcement last week, the Prime Minister told us his Cabinet made an evidence-based, not at all political decision that would not have been possible “without the leadership of Premier Notley and Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan.” Unfortunately our impending Carbon Tax, along with other ‘green’ measures being taken, and the green light from the NEB was not enough to allow for Cabinet approval of the Northern Gateway Pipeline.
Still the very instant Trudeau made his announcement, opponents of the pipeline like Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, environmentalists, First Nation groups, and even west coast Liberal MPs vowed to fight the decision and construction of the pipeline to the bitter end.
For many opponents of pipelines, the hostility isn`t to the pipeline itself; the undeniably safest way to transport oil - it is to the oil itself and the mining, refining, and carbon emissions from when it eventually gets burnt. It doesn’t matter that the rest of the world will use oil regardless of its origin. Nor does it matter that we produce less than 2% of world CO2 emissions, that Alberta has a Carbon Tax and is phasing out coal power, or that there is no readily available or economically viable technology to replace oil and gas.
That is why ‘social licence’ is not a real thing. There will always be those that are in opposition. Is there ‘social licence’ when just 100 people oppose a decision? How about 1000, 1, 49%, or does it have to be none at all? If neither our democratically elected Federal Government or the impartial NEB with their encyclopedia of criteria can’t grant ‘social licence’ for an energy project, how can it exist?
There will always be detractors and those that say “what if x, y, and z were to happen and the stars aligned and a 1 in a million event happened.” To those opposing the pipeline approval decision it doesn’t matter that pipelines have an exemplary track record when it comes to safety or that Canadian energy companies are the most environmentally responsible in the world. Nor does it matter that the Prime Minister gave his blessing, that the pipelines met NEB criteria, or that the projects are in the national interest and provides immense economic benefit.
If ‘social licence’ does not exist, we need to stop the endlessly hopeless effort of trying to get it. We as Albertans should be environmentally responsible because it is the right thing to do - not because we’re trying to win over professional protestors. Similarly, our very environmentally aware provincial government should ensure their policy choices have Albertans best interests at heart and not just those that will attempt to block pipeline development regardless.
Keep in mind, this whole process was done to approve the expansion of an existing pipeline and replace another that was built in the 60s.
Reg Warkentin is the Policy & Advocacy Manager for the Red Deer and District Chamber of Commerce
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