Tag Archives: premier of New Brunswick

Shale gas greets new catchwords in 2015


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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No room for pleasantries in real politics


Despite his occasional partisan bluster – a necessity of elective office, regardless of one’s political flavour – the premier of New Brunswick is a genuinely nice guy who actually cares about other people’s feelings.

In fact, until recently, about the only way to get an authentic rise out of David Alward was to suggest the he and his government ministers were aloof to the concerns of their fellow citizens, content to play king and courtiers in their castle made of sand above the high water mark on Freddy Beach.

“It bugs me,” the pastor’s son (who is a certified psychological counsellor, a former community developer and an active rural hobby farmer) once interrupted himself in mid-interview with yours truly. “I don’t know how anyone could describe us as closed or uncommunicative or not inclusive.”

The truth, of course, is that openness has all but typified the premier’s political oeuvre since he came to govern one of Canada’s defiantly ungovernable provinces in 2010. Where his predecessor, Liberal Premier Shawn Graham, protected his counsel like a NSA agent under house arrest, Mr. Alward has done a contortionist’s job at public events, and in private meetings, explaining, in often exquisite detail, his plans and priorities; in effect, his thinking.

And that may be his biggest problem.

On Friday, the premier was in a rare uncompromising, even antagonistic, mood. Lashing out at anti-shale gas activists in the province, he declared that they represented the point of the spear aimed directly at the heart of natural resources industries here.

“This is not just about SWN (Resources Inc.) being able to develop,” the Telegraph-Journal quoted him. “This not just about Rexton or Kent County and SWN. Mark my words that the same groups that are against seeing SWN move forward with exploration are against projects like Sisson Brook or other potential mining projects we have in New Brunswick. They are against seeing pipelines come across our country to Saint John and creating the prosperity (they) can.”

The denouement of his point was simply this: “The question the New Brunswickers should be asking is ‘what is our vision for our province’? . . .Do we want to have our young people living here in our province building their lives here or are we condemning them to having no choice of where they are going to live in the future?”

These are, indeed, the questions. They have always been the questions. It’s just too bad that Premier Alward has waited until now – less than a year before the provincial election – to pose them with such cogency and force.

In fact, had he spent more time over the past 18 months unapologetically supporting industry’s efforts to ascertain the economic potential of shale gas (indeed, of all promising avenues of natural resources) – and commensurately less time defending his government’s decisions and convening public panels in vain attempts to win friends and influence people – the conversation in this province might now be profoundly different, and radically more productive.

The bottom line is that Mr. Alward’s generally laudable instinct to consult ‘the people’ has also been a lamentable liability of his leadership, and on more files than natural resources.

The awful state of the province’s books – its rolling $500-million deficit on a long-term debt of $11 billion – is not, strictly speaking, the premier’s fault.

Still, in a way, it is.

By refusing to consider raising the provincial portion of the Harmonized Sales Tax, because he promised ‘the people’ he would consult them first, in the form of a referendum, he effectively tied the hands of his Finance Minister and severely compromised New Brunswick’s fiscal recovery from the Great Recession.

Had he forced the province to swallow this bitter, but necessary, pill early in his mandate, the public accounts would have been far healthier than they are today, providing the governing Tories with more and better options for health, education and social policies.

It might even have influenced the debate about shale gas by having eliminated much of the monetary hysteria that now underpins it.

Make no mistake: The consultative, empathetic premier of New Brunswick is a genuinely nice guy.

But, oftentimes, as the saying goes, nice guys finish. . .well, not first.

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