Social license, more than public consultation

Private interests wanting to develop natural resources need to do more than “consult” with local residents — they need locals’ consent and approval

A concept that has become a significant part of the popular discourse in most new energy projects is the notion of “social license” or “social acceptability”. Whether it is fracking in Newfoundland & Labrador, mining or pipelines in Quebec or the Maritimes, or LNG terminals and pipelines in northern British Columbia, industry and governments are being asked to obtain some level of permission from communities.

Perceived as a form of approval and resistance for the communities or, at the very least, a direct involvement in the decision making process, it is often viewed as a problem and another obstacle to go through by the project proponents. Therefore, in addition to obtaining the necessary government permits, industry [corporation] has to negotiate “social permission”.

Of course, social license can be a way of gaining credibility, trust and establishing good relationship, through transparency and meaningful dialogue with the communities concerned. However, could it be an exercise in public relations to offset opposing views, or a technique to engage in a “charm campaign” by the industry and government in order to achieve the desired outcome? In this context, public consultation is not to be considered equal to social license. The two are not the same!

The degree of social license obtained is often based on three elements: the project may be acceptable, unacceptable, or acceptable with certain conditions.

For social license to fully take place, the communities must:

  • Have clear and adequate knowledge—based on independent scientific research—of the potential risks, the advantages and the impacts of a project. In other words, be able to make an informed decision based on all of the possible implications of the project that will affect their community.
  • Have an opportunity to engage in a meaningful discussion as to the values of the project and its development to the society at large.
  • Have the ability to say “No” to a project.

In a sense, social license is more than a moral obligation — it is a social contract to be obtained and respected. Without it, consider the project as a hostile take-over.

Raymond Cusson, Shoal Brook (Gros Morne), NL

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