I have said for years that social license is the cultural and political milieu a project lives in. If the cultural and political milieu is friendly towards your project then it can have significant impacts and still get help to meet social license requirements. I recently discovered on the Google web site that a single google search creates 0.2 grams of emissions and that 1.2 trillion annual searches create 24Mt of carbon annually. This is a third of all of Quebec’s emissions and yet no one contemplates restricting our access to google searches not to mention the many other companies operating high emissions server farms (though in fairness to Google they have a climate policy to try to reduce emissions).
On the other hand, if your product or industry is not seen positively in the cultural milieu then it doesn’t matter what the positive impacts, it will meet stiff resistance. I note that nuclear plants produce zero emissions electricity and yet can’t get popular support even with a public concerned about the impacts of climate change.
Social license is separate from the rule of law. This aspect is very frustrating for many who look for predictability in particular to attract private investment. They look to have social license embedded in the law and regulations to create stability and predictability for economic growth. But the political and cultural milieu is not something that can be defined by the law, it works the other way around as it’s the political culture that defines the law.
Social license culture change is underpinned by social media and the technology to be able to efficiently consult with large groups of people. Before World War I, we obeyed authority, then we respected it until Vietnam when we challenged it, and now with social media, we more and more believe we are the authority. We have seen the law evolve from no involvement in decisions to being informed of decisions, to being consulted on decisions to now having a direct say on decisions through the concept of social license.
This is a meaningful step towards a direct democracy model from the representative democracy model embodied in our constitution. However, our constitution has evolved quickly around consultation for First Nations who now press more and more for informed consent. Social license is, in essence, a type of informed consent and we may see the law evolve quickly as citizens demand analogous rights as First Nations around projects that affect them. One example is the groundbreaking Green Book in Quebec, intended to put some definition around what social license means relative to our representative democracy constitution and laws.
In the oil and gas industry, we have had decades of experience working on surface land that belongs to someone else. We have an intuitive understanding that if the landowner doesn’t consent then it’s going to be a difficult business for us. In that sense, we are good at social license. However, it’s a new experience to have people largely or even completely unaffected by our operations wanting to give an informed consent. Explaining the operational safety to a landowner is much different than explaining the societal benefits of our product. That’s the cultural change our industry has to make to meet the test of social license.
One of the main challenges that is quickly emerging under the emerging social license approach is that those who are in favour of a project largely feel unaffected. They thus tend not to participate in the process for there’s no need. However, those who feel they are or might be adversely affected have strong reasons to protect their interests and are highly motivated to participate. This is reported in the media as hundreds or even thousands who protest but never reported as millions stayed home and watched TV. It’s why political power is ‘numbers times intensity’ with all of the emphasis being on the intensity of the group members.
Thus, we are seeing many projects where the polling says the majority strongly supports projects. Yet, people say there is no social license because we judge it by those who are visible and vocal. We are even intimidated by the intense group willing to break social norms to block progress and the will of the majority. We will see the wealth gap continue if we don’t find a way to balance the law, the economy and reasonable demands for social license.
Where political courage used to be standing up for a persecuted minority against majority rule we are more and more seeing real political courage is standing up for the majority to move the economy and nation forward.