As the debate about an energy strategy for Canada has unfolded, several core themes have emerged.

Carbon pricing needs to be pursued if we ever hope to deal with climate change. Regulatory efficiency is critical to energy development. Energy efficiency and conservation is important for reducing both economic and environmental costs.

In 2009, the Energy Framework Initiative (sponsored by the Canadian hydrocarbon industry associations and supported by a wide spectrum of people interested in energy issues) identified the critical “pillars” of the ongoing conversation about energy in Canada which included the above topics among others [1]. One of the pillars—the question of social license to build and operate [2]—has become lost in the debate. This issue needs to be brought forward because social license may be the most pressing issue facing our energy system in the coming decade.

Canada has a long history, much of it successful, in facing up to social license challenges including those affecting hydro-electric and pipeline developments, mining projects and, perhaps most famously and successfully, forestry practices. The issue is hardly new. But the consequences of ignoring social license or treating it dismissively appear to be piling up and the implications for our energy future are profound. The list of the recent or ongoing controversies is long and growing: wind farms in Ontario, electric transmission in Alberta, BC and Manitoba, gas fired power plants in BC and Ontario and, most recently and notoriously, oil pipelines just about everywhere. It seems that building just about anything may become politically impossible or at the least subject to costly delays, redesign or cancellation. For a variety of reasons these are costs we can ill afford.

Much of the response to this issue is reflected in calls for regulatory reform and increased energy “literacy” or by the invention of new acronyms from NIMBY to NOPE to BANANA. None of these responses gets at the core issue. Regulatory reform is needed, but it will rest on a foundation of sand if the underlying social license is absent. Energy education may be a good idea, but it is unlikely to be sufficient to convince the public, and even less likely to convince affected local communities, to support specific energy projects.  And apart from amusing a few people at conferences, the invention of new acronyms seems only to underscore what appears to be dismissive contemptuousness in the face of real social issues that call for much more serious thinking.

Arguably, the apparent breakdown in societal consensus in support of energy projects reflects deeper social currents—ones reflected in both the US Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements. Elite accommodation, as political scientists characterize it, no longer carries the day. Elites—all of them—are mistrusted, often profoundly. At the same time, an increasingly complex and fractious society makes it harder to achieve consensus on anything.

The energy debate can hardly hope to turn back such deep social currents. But energy is arguably more affected by these currents than any other sector of the economy. All energy infrastructure is implicated, from large to small.  Energy infrastructure is often intrusive on the landscape. It is associated in myth, perception or reality with all manner of health risks. It generates air emissions. It is the center of the climate change issue. It often extends thousands of miles and faces vulnerabilities that almost no other type of development faces. Therefore, if the energy community fails to come to grips with social license, Canada will have difficulty meeting its energy needs, miss out on economic opportunities and struggle to ensure that the energy system achieves environmental goals.

We can start to address this challenge by acknowledging that we are more often than not talking about costs—real costs to the affected communities—and costs that tend to fall disproportionately on some communities while all or most of the benefits fall somewhere else. A cost framework—environmental and social externalities—is something that is familiar and relatively easily incorporated into decision processes. That doesn’t mean the costs are easy to bear. Nor does it mean that they are easy to measure and assess. But these are the sorts of problems that policy processes are designed to address.

We are also talking about benefits and here we have some positive examples where local communities became beneficiaries of projects. Big hydro projects and pipelines have successfully incorporated local communities as equity owners and individuals in those communities as skilled labour and as business partners. Some of these benefits, of course, come at a cost in reduced returns to the projects or higher prices for consumers, but both of these sorts of consequences are manageable in the course of business and less costly than endless uncertainty or late stage cancellations.

Sometimes the problems are more elusive. What do you do about an affluent urban community that will be the direct beneficiary of a power project but chooses to define its interests narrowly and cloak them in specious scientific claims about health impacts? What do you do about purely aesthetic impacts?

Social license problems arise in part because individual projects bear the burden of broader public policy failures. If we fail to come to grips with pricing carbon, then every project with implications for carbon becomes the battle ground in a fight where those wanting to reduce carbon emissions lack other more constructive choices. When citizens perceive that not enough is being done to mitigate demand growth, the need for many individual projects will lack societal support. Where regional land planning and cumulative effects management is deficient or perceived to be so, individual projects bear the consequences of these unresolved policy issues.

These examples, of course, underscore why a Canadian energy strategy matters—because individual parts of the puzzle are intimately linked.  It would be naive to suggest that a carbon pricing policy, sophisticated demand side initiatives and regional planning will magically eliminate opposition to something like the oil sands or wind farms or flooding for new reservoirs. But they would bolster the social legitimacy of individual projects and give regulatory authorities much stronger policy foundations on which to base their decisions. Combined with some creative thinking about costs and benefits, who pays and who doesn’t and how it all can be fairly divided, we might be able to build the framework for more systematically dealing with the social license issue.


1. See especially Andre Plourde and Ed Whittingham’s paper for the Energy Framework Initiative entitled “Pillar 4 – A Complicated Tale – Developing Energy in Canada is Not a Simple Matter.

2. Social license is the existence of broadly based societal approval, often at the local community level but also at the level of society as a whole, for a given activity or project.

– By Michael Cleland and Roger Gibbins