Shale gas greets new catchwords in 2015

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There is, as Ecclesiastics declares, nothing new under the sun; there is only the same, old trend, fashion or fad, freshly washed, dried, dressed, shod and shoved, once again, onto the super-highway of human history and told to survive if, indeed, it dares.

And, so, welcome to 2015 my dear “social licence to operate”. May we call you “social licence”? It’s shorter and that might be good for your image. Lord knows you’re going to need all the help you can get this year.

Actually, as shibboleths go, this is not a bad one. It’s not especially jargony. It seems reasonably comprehensible. In fact, New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant is confident enough in his own understanding of the term, he’s started to deploy it as invocation whenever he talks about the on-again, off-again shale gas industry in the province (which is now off again).

“There shall be no drilling,” he says (or in words to that effect) until the companies responsible for hydraulic fracturing obtain the appropriate amount of social licence to proceed.

To which Corridor Resources’ CEO Steve Moran recently shrugged: “Huh?”

His actual words to CBC News were: “Even the premier when he was asked didn’t really have an answer in terms of what that means.”

Tory Opposition Leader Bruce Fitch concurred, as Premier Gallant attempted to clarify his position, telling the CBC, “We’ll certainly do the best we can to get the pulse, and the sense of New Brunswickers on whether any of these operations. . .have a social license.”

In fact, though, there’s no great mystery around the meaning of “social licence”. The mining industry has plumbed the nuances of its definition for years, or so says the Fraser Institute, an economic and public policy think tank with offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal:

“The  social licence to operate (SLO) refers to the level of acceptance or approval by local communities and stakeholders of mining companies and their operations. The concept has evolved fairly recently from the broader and more established notion of ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ and is based on the idea that mining companies need not only government permission [or permits] but also ‘social permission’ to conduct their business.

Indeed, the Institute states, “Increasingly, having an SLO is an essential part of operating within democratic jurisdictions, as without sufficient popular support it is unlikely that agencies from elected governments will willingly grant operational permits or licences. However, the need for and ultimate success of achieving an SLO relies to a large extent on functioning government and sound institutions. . .Many mining companies now consider gaining an SLO as an appropriate business expense that ultimately adds to the bottom line.”

If all this seems broadly familiar – just another way to renovate good, old “corporate social responsibility” (or CSR) and slap a “priced-to-sell” sticker on the front door – experts in these matters beg to differ (naturally).

“CSR is often too peripheral to the core business model, too much of a side-show, too far from providing real ‘shared value’,” writes John Morrison, executive director of the Institute for human rights and business, in a recent issue of the Guardian online. “Even more fundamental are the false dichotomies that CSR has set up. There’s the voluntary versus mandatory debate, companies that are ‘good at CSR’ are valued regardless of the impact of their core operations.”

What’s more, Morrison insists, “Social licence can never be self-awarded, it requires that an activity enjoys sufficient trust and legitimacy, and has the consent of those affected. Business cannot determine how much prevention or mitigation it should engage in to meet environmental or social risk – stakeholders and rights-holders have to be involved for thresholds of due diligence to be legitimate (sometimes even if these are clearly determined in law).”

Herein, of course, lies the rub.

Like its predecessor and memetic forebear CSR, social license, as a concept, is not especially difficult to comprehend or articulate.

What challenges policy makers, politicians, community representatives and industrial players, themselves, is making it work well or long enough to produce sufficient benefits to satisfy all competing competing interests at the table.

This is rendered all the more complicated by the fundamentally revokable nature of social licences. A company that meets its obligations in one area on any given day may not be deemed to have done the same elsewhere at another time.

Then what?

Under such circumstances, Premier Gallant’s shale-gas moratorium may be the lesser of two evils facing the industry in New Brunswick.

Then again, what else is new?

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