Green book to change the red light

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People who know me, know it’s not my inclination to gratuitously praise Government.  However, the Quebec Government is taking some much needed leadership on social license and praise is due.

Our Utica natural gas discovery erupted the hydrocarbon debate in Quebec in 2010.  Since then a series of high profile Canadian energy projects bumbled up, one by one, against the advocates for a Utopian ‘new fuels future’.   It’s evident the newish requirement to achieve social license is not a unique to Quebec.

Putting social in front of powerful words is pervasive today.  However, is ‘social justice’ actually better than ‘justice’ or is ‘social democracy’ better than ‘democracy’?  When we put ‘social’ in front of ‘license’ what does it mean precisely.

Social license has its roots in two things: ‘social media’ and the ‘duty to consult’.  I have written before on the internet as the biggest democratization of information since the printing press is diminishing the need for ‘representative democracy’ and creating the technical capability to have meaningful ‘direct democracy’.  One result, is that the legitimacy of Government issued licenses is much more easily challenged, by creating and connecting ‘social groups’.

The ‘duty to consult’ has been evolving since the social revolution of the sixties.  The obligation to inform is now embedded in most regulation.  There is also a growing regulatory requirement to ‘consult’ those impacted by a project. For projects affecting First Nations the ‘duty to consult’ has been confirmed as a constitutional right.

The problem is regulations haven’t kept up with court rulings and don’t define the process nor the end point of consultation processes. This has left a vacuum.  How do we know who should be consulted and how do we know when consultations are appropriate?

In to this vacuum opponents injected the concept of ‘social license’.  They defined the end goal of consultations to be when ‘society’ has given its license.  From a ‘social justice’ point of view if you are a member of ‘society’ then you have a ‘social democratic’ right to grant ‘social license’.  It’s an appealing line of logic.  Public relations professionals quickly recognized a money maker and have been accessories after the fact.  Unfortunately, while the principles are attractive, the practice is anything but. 

In theory we want to be consulted but in practice almost everyone is too busy.  Modern projects entail an enormity of technical detail, which was why we subjected them to expert Governmental review in the first place.  So people tend to delegate their newish right to be consulted to the hyper-engaged. These people are rarely technical experts and all too often are affiliated with perennial and professional opponents to development.

So the ‘duty to consult’ has morphed in practice to a requirement to have a ‘social license’ which ironically means you have to seek approval from project opponents because they are the hyper engaged.

The Quebec Government has recognized this.  It isn’t just the Utica natural gas discovery working hard to gain social license.  Dozens of new projects in Quebec are blocked to a greater or lesser extent.  The solution proposed by the Government is to create some definition around the consultation process.

Minister Arcand published the Green Book.  It is an outline for best practices for how the Government and the Project Promoter could/should consult on new projects.  It doesn’t go so far as to create objective rules and so still leaves a vacuum.  However, it has established some clear principles:  one in particular is social license does not mean unanimity and thus approval from opponents is not necessary.

I think this initiative is ground breaking.  It is a model for every social democratic society.  We might do well to look to Quebec’s leadership to see what we might do better in the rest of Canada to make social license work.  The gridlock of perpetual red lights might just be solvable with a green book.