Taking off her backpack and jacket in the lecture hall, the spirited student blurted out, "I wasn't here in time to listen to your presentation, but whatever you said, I disagree with you."
I smiled. It was an appropriate closing statement after a week-long odyssey through the beautiful, but tough-minded communities of northern British Columbia. Like an 18th century explorer trying to find the mysterious source of the Nile, my adventure was to track down the elusive bureau, institution or co-operative of citizens that grant "social licence" to builders of oil and gas pipelines.
My travels began at Kitimat, where tankers are imagined to be laden with liquefied natural gas (LNG) and crude oil. Trekking east, against the flow of future pipelines, I spent most of my journey in and around the quaint town of Smithers, which many suggest is the Ground Zero of opposition. It is in such regions along the pipeline route, on the traditional territories of the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en First Nations, where the National Energy Board (NEB) process for approving pipelines is subordinate to the "Bureau of Social Licence."
An easier journey would have been a direct flight to Prince George. With a large coffee in hand, I could have listened in on the NEB Joint Review Panel on the Northern Gateway pipeline project, which is still in session. But the NEB grants a different licence than the one I was looking for. NEB applications are rigorous affairs full of formalities, with endless boxes to tick, kilo-pages of report submissions, and sullen testimonies in front of weary officials.
Historically, an NEB approval was the biggest rubber stamp in the drawer, encircling the interests of all Canadians . At the end of the arduous process, the validation of conscientious safety practices, stringent environmental protection, enhanced economic value and overall social benefit delivered a stamp on the applicant's licence that confidently said, "APPROVED."
But lately the stamp-pad is looking a bit dry around the edges, especially in British Columbia. On the ground, distant from the high-altitude jurisdiction of the NEB, consent is a function of community, not the civil bureaucracy.
The erosion of faith in higher institutions is nothing new in western democracies, especially in today's age of rapid-fire social media. Yet, there should be a thick line separating grass roots, community level democracy built on sensible, factual discussion and the spread of disinformation that, in the worst case, foments fear and intimidation. I discovered communities that have been polluted not with the tailings of modern energy infrastructure, but with toxic ideas that amplify alarm and distrust. It's deeply disturbing that citizens, especially students like the one I encountered at the end of my trip, are somehow being trained to disagree without the courtesy – if not societal duty – to engage alternate points of view. This is my greatest concern.
In community after community I found the perpetuation of nonsensical claims about energy infrastructure, some reported in trusted local media. Beyond the usual suggestions of environmental Armageddon, conspiracy theories are sprouting; for example, the ludicrous misinformation that "LNG pipelines" are going to be built and then converted into oil pipelines – implying a sort of nefarious bait-and-switch scheme cooked up by oil company executives masquerading in natural gas clothing. If nothing else, editorial oversight should recognize that pipelines don't carry natural gas in liquefied form.
I eventually found the Bureau of Social Licence. It wasn't hard. Yet, at many of its wickets I found disinformation, misinformation, emotionally charged bias and deep distrust for applicants. The office hours were clear: None, unless prodded.
But there were other wickets at the bureau, and they represented a quiet but increasingly restless constituency, possibly the majority, that support responsible development of energy infrastructure. Pipeline supporters in northern B.C. are not vocal about offering up social licence, in part due to apathy, but also due to fear of intimidation by community peers who fervently oppose such projects. Mostly, they don't offer support simply because nobody has come knocking.
Obtaining social licence is all about building, earning and maintaining trust with people. How obvious is that? And that's where the system has broken down. Not surprisingly, if there was one opinion confirmed by my odyssey, it's that the oil and gas industry – especially the leaders – has done a dismal job of building relationships, countering disinformation and earning trust in communities. It's an issue that extends far beyond British Columbia, and is getting worse. That's what happens when organizations and institutions focus on rubber-stamp processes rather than building long-term trust at ground level.
One commonly held belief that I didn't prove, was that, "It's too late." Building trust always takes a long time, but it's not too late for all stakeholders, including governments, to engage. For five days I met with, listened to, presented to, and casually spoke with people on all sides of the pipeline issues. It was difficult work, but even the most hardened individuals had genuine interest in objectively discussing issues that are now vitally important to the region, and the country at large.
The search for social licence can be daunting. Yet with the hindsight of my voyage, maybe it's better to build bridges across the Nile than seek its elusive source.
Peter Tertzakian is chief energy economist and managing director with Arc Financial Corp. in Calgary and provides analysis on technology and energy-related businesses to fund managers and portfolio companies. With more than 20 years experience, he has also worked at a senior oil and gas company and a financial advisory firm and is the best-selling author ofA Thousand Barrels A Second andThe End of Energy Obesity.