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Achieving ‘social licence’ complicates today’s pipeline debates

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March 3, 2013

Mike RobinsonVANCOUVER, BC, Mar. 3, 2013/ Troy Media/ – Back in the 1970s and early 1980s when Canada was previously awash with discussion about building pipelines (it was the Mackenzie Valley and Alaska Highway natural gas pipelines back then), the great debate was also about environmental integrity and aboriginal rights, and to a lesser degree nationalism.

However, 30 years ago, before the internet and climate change awareness, environmental issues mostly meant pipeline fractures, explosions and river crossings. Aboriginal rights translated, courtesy of the ‘Berger Inquiry,’ into a recommended 10-year delay in construction, so northern land claims could be settled, and local people could train for construction and operations employment and business opportunities.

The movement of hydrocarbons to foreign markets, their incineration and venting into the atmosphere, and global warming as a consequence never entered the dialogue. I know because I was there as manager of northern programs for the PolarGas Pipeline Project.

Today, 36 years after the publication of Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland: the Report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry (1977), the regulatory world twists and turns to cope with a radically changed environment. Socially-conscious judges play no role at all in regulatory review. Instead a Joint Review Process brings the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and the National Energy Board (NEB) together to advise the Governor in Council (the federal cabinet) about whether a project should be approved. Back in the glory days of the NEB, project go-ahead was determined by a board staffed with engineering and economics experts who determined if a certificate to construct could be issued on the grounds of public convenience and necessity. The certificate came with attached terms and conditions that the applicant must implement if approval was granted.

To cope with the corporate needs for a regulatory ‘single window,’ the federal government created the Northern Pipeline Agency in 1978, principally as the agency streamlining all governmental input to the corporate development of environmental and socio-economic plans for the delivery of the terms and conditions. This exercise yielded product: the Environmental and Socio-Economic Plans for construction of Foothills Pipelines’ so-called ‘Prebuild’ of the Alaska Highway Gas Pipeline in Alberta. This section of the pipeline was actually built.

Now that the NEB decision-making process has been emasculated, and the federal ‘single window’ (the Joint Review Process) relegated to a ‘Predecision’ advisor, new language is being used by cabinet members. Last November, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, in a speech to the Canada Energy Summit, said that: ‘If we don’t get people on side, we don’t get the social licence – politics often follows opinion – and so we could well get a positive regulatory conclusion from the joint panel that is looking at the Northern Gateway, but if the population is not on side, there is a big problem.’

Back in 1970s that kind of talk, and the term ‘social licence,’ uttered by a cabinet minister, would cause consternation in the corporate executive suites precisely because it is imprecise and not legally defined in the NEB statute. The beauty of the old NEB was its ability to render decisions that reflected engineering and scientific rigor, in a legal context, very much at arm’s length from politics.

So what has changed since the Alaska Highway Gas Pipeline days, to relegate interprovincial pipeline approvals to political process, and away from the engineers, economists and lawyers of the NEB? Many argue that we have a Conservative plurality-majority government, intent on re-making our national culture in its own image. And I would argue that the clear and present reality of both social media and climate change awareness have greatly complicated energy project decision-making at the national level.

I think that the term ‘social licence,’ coined in the late 1990s by the mining industry, is politically useful because it encompasses these new realities (in particular climate change), without requiring their spoken reference. If anything puts fear in our national plurality-majority government right now, it is admitting that the climate change die is cast. And I have yet to read a Northern Gateway advertorial that mentions climate change, or considers just what the Chinese incineration of Albertan bitumen will contribute to global temperature increases.

Social licence, as defined by the Australian Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility, refers to ‘the level of acceptance or approval continually granted to an organization’s operations or project by local community and other stakeholders.’ How will the federal cabinet measure its existence when it receives the report of the Joint Review Panel at the end of this year?

Troy Media syndicated columnist Mike Robinson has lived half of his life in Alberta and half in B.C. In Calgary he worked for eight years in the oil patch, 14 in academia, and eight years as a cultural CEO.

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