Lack of social licence
(Special from Prince George Citizen) – Two years ago, we made our case in this space in a two-part editorial that the Northern Gateway pipeline was worth building and the miniscule risk of a major incident did not warrant rejecting it.
Our view hasn’t changed, particularly in light of the scientific evidence gathered by the Joint Review Panel and the onerous 209 conditions placed on Enbridge to build and operate the pipeline linking Kitimat to the Alberta oil sands.
To summarize our justification based on risk, there are hundreds of thousands of kilometres of pipelines in Canada alone, yet spills of more than a few litres, are rare. The likelihood of a catastrophic spill, on either land or water, does not match the degree of fear that such an event could actually happen.
Something else hasn’t changed, either, and that’s the lack of public support for Northern Gateway. That missing piece — what both proponents and opponents of the project call social licence — does have us questioning our support for the pipeline, particularly after the Kitimat referendum on Saturday.
Residents in the northwestern community voted 1,793 to 1,278 (58.4 per cent to 41.6 per cent) in opposition of the project. The minor details – the vote was non-binding on the municipal government and Kitimat did not take part in the Joint Review Panel process – should be put aside. The reality is this vote speaks volumes about the lack of social licence the federal government has to approve the pipeline and Enbridge has to construct it.
If the residents of Kitimat, the community with by far the most to gain in terms of jobs and wealth from Northern Gateway, could not be convinced of its worth, then the Harper Conservatives need to take a sober second look at approving construction of the pipeline. Even after Enbridge invested in a lavish campaign to convince Kitimat voters to back the pipeline, the vote still didn’t go the company’s way. In other words, Enbridge may be pretty good at transporting petroleum products though pipelines but it’s terrible at convincing the public of the value of the work it does.
The value of social licence, however, should’t be overstated. If governments waited until the majority of residents in an affected area were in favor before doing anything, civil rights would not have come to the American South in the mid-1960s, Canadians wouldn’t be paying a transparent goods and services tax, gay marriage wouldn’t be legal and Okanagan wineries would still be receiving lucrative government subsidies to bottle Baby Duck and Spumonte.
The whole point of electing politicians is to pick the best and brightest among the population (or at least the best and brightest communicators to the voters) to make difficult decisions that are good for the majority of the people, even when a majority of the people disagree. Through taxes, politicians are paid to study those complicated problems, the ones most of us have little time to study ourselves, and make the best choices they can on behalf of everyone.
The best part of democracy is voters are free to object to those choices, through direct protest and through the vote on election day.
The troubling question about social licence, particularly when it comes to Northern Gateway, is how could B.C. residents know when Enbridge has it? Would it be like a light bulb turning on, one moment it’s dark and the next moment it’s shining bright? Even if Kitimat voters had decided by one solitary vote to support Northern Gateway, would that be social licence?
Enbridge tried to convince the residents of Kitimat and the region about Northern Gateway’s benefits with logic, expertise and reason. Only when it was too late did Enbridge make an emotional appeal to trust Janet Holder that she, like us, really cares and wants to protect our land and water. Pipeline opponents, meanwhile, made the emotional appeal first and then backed it up with their own data.
In Kitimat, the public has spoken and the results would likely be an even greater rejection of Northern Gateway if the vote were held across the region or across the province.
The federal government has the authority to approve Northern Gateway without the support of a majority of residents. The question for the Prime Minister and his cabinet is should they ignore the will of the people, particularly when they’ve made their wishes known in a formal vote?
The answer should be no.