Under Canadian laws, major projects are subjected to regulatory hearings conducted by panels possessing the necessary expertise to reach technically and environmentally sound decisions. Proponents and opponents make their cases for and against, recognizing that the tribunal will make the final determination of the project's fate.
That was before "social licence," a term invented two decades ago by B.C. mining engineer James Cooney, morphed into an additional obstacle facing project sponsors. James Cooney's new term was meant to describe a process whereby local populations would be informed about a project and their feedback taken into consideration in final plan design.
This logical and clearly important step has since evolved into the expectation that no project should proceed without gaining broad "social licence," thereby presenting anti-development lobby groups with the opportunity to impact a project's fate by fostering opposition not only from those directly affected, but the public at large.
In this dynamic, the playing field is almost always tipped against the project sponsor because, while opponents can make sensationally exaggerated and false allegations about a project without any fear of reprisal, even the smallest discrepancies in the project sponsor's information are met with a chorus of strident criticism.
A case in point is the huge effort environmental NGOs exerted to convince First Nation groups that Northern Gateway, one of the most robust and safest pipelines designed, would destroy their water supplies and pollute their soil. These same groundless tactics have been used in an effort to turn public opinion in British Columbia, and across the country, against the project. But hidden carefully from both First Nations and the public is the NGOs' real agenda, stopping development of the Canadian oil sands.
The multinational NGOs campaigning against Northern Gateway are also campaigning against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline which would supply U.S. oil refineries. And the same scurrilous allegation tactics being used to rally opposition to Northern Gateway in Canada are being used to foment opposition to Keystone XL in the United States. Sierra Club's "Stop the Keystone XL" website alleges, "Dirty tar sands development is … decimating caribou populations … and wolves are being shot … from helicopters." Really?
San Francisco-based ForestEthics is conducting a "Stop the U.S. Demand for Canada's Toxic Tar Sands" campaign aimed at Keystone XL. It is also behind a "Clean up Your Transportation" campaign that has 19 major companies and two U.S. cities pledging to not buy products from oil sands refineries. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and several other groups are also carrying out vigorous, well-funded anti-oil-sands propaganda campaigns.
As if this wasn't enough to sway public opinion, rock stars and actors make well publicized "fact-finding" visits to the oil sands where, after their earnest industry hosts have proudly shown their efforts to minimize environmental impacts, the celebrities spout apocalyptic anti-oil-sands diatribe for the media before roaring off in their oil-fuelled private jets. Here again, in the court of public opinion, industry is badly outgunned. If winning popular support against these tactics is the definition of "social licence," then not only are the oil sands doomed, but also other Canadian resource development projects including mining and forestry.
A clear indication of contempt for due process under the laws of our land came in the wake of the federal cabinet's conditional approval of Northern Gateway. ForestEthics Tar Sands Campaign Director, Ben West stated, "We will be helping organize non-violent direct action trainings. We hope it doesn't have to come to that, but we are getting organized to make sure folks will be safe if the courts fail to stop the project in time."
By the time large resource development projects reach the regulatory decision stage, many years and billions of dollars have been invested in identifying the resource, designing the facilities and the regulatory process itself. Shareholder support for these huge up-front risks is only possible if the regulatory process is clearly definable and the result enforceable. If "social licence" means demonstrating to regulators that best efforts have been made to consult and gain support from those directly impacted, then that is as it should be. But expecting project sponsors to win a public popularity contest against the fact-distorting propaganda of ideologically anti-development NGO's would bring Canada's most important economic driver to a screeching halt.