Social Relevance + Local Acceptability = Social Acceptability
In November 2014 Quebec’s Energy and Natural Resources Minister, Pierre Arcand, launched a vast initiative on the social acceptability of projects to develop public land as well as energy and mineral resources.
Following a report released by Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton (RCGT) in November that examined the different factors that ensure the social acceptability of projects, Minister Arcand tabled a green paper at the National Assembly on social acceptability that became the subject of parliamentary committee consultations. In other words, Minister Arcand's goal is to improve the government’s batting average in carrying out major development projects.
Generally speaking, the lack of social acceptability stems from major shortcomings on two levels:
- that of local acceptability, because of the impact the projects in question have on communities that are directly affected (noise, pollution, traffic, safety, property values, etc.);
- that of social relevance, because developers have proven to be incapable of convincing communities that projects will meet certain guidelines or expectations (sectoral policies, direct and indirect economic spinoffs, overall environmental impacts).
Faced with the emergence of a kind of knee-jerk opposition to major development projects, the government made it clear early on to developers that it was up to them and them alone to obtain community support. In fact, developers found themselves with the significant burden of defending guidelines and choices that were not necessarily their own.
Interestingly enough, on page 107 of the report entitled Ministère de l’Énergie et des Ressources naturelles : Conciliation des usages lors de la mise en valeur du territoire dans une perspective d’acceptabilité sociale (RCGT, October 6, 2015), the authors identify, among the various factors that have an effect on the social acceptability of projects, “the integration of a project according to government guidelines.” They even specify that “a project that is well received by a community is (…) a project that has been proven to be economically and socially relevant.”
Yet the responsibility of demonstrating this relevance should fall to the government: first because they supply major infrastructure work and they are the architects of economic development strategies as well as natural and energy resource development strategies; and second because these measures require the approval of the people, for whom elected officials are the legitimate representatives.
The current ambiguity is even more troubling as it gives the impression that social acceptability is somehow a filter used to naturally select projects, regardless of their relevance to society.
For local communities, the relevance is just one less thing for them to worry about and one less thing to consider when evaluating the local impacts of the projects that affect them.
For developers, it is an unfair situation because at the community consultation stage, they are misled into believing that they have the government’s support with regard to the relevance of their projects.
The debate surrounding hydrocarbon exploration and development projects in Quebec in the past decade is full of examples where politicians have deliberately used local acceptability issues of major projects to meet the expectations of those who have contested their social relevance.
There is no need to mention that, at the time, Quebec’s energy policy was dated, its hydrocarbon component was obsolete, and the legislative and regulatory framework in effect targeted the mining sector. The consequence of this flagrant lack of clear benchmarks and guidelines for the government was merely a partisan politicization and an appalling improvisation.
The Quebec government’s decision in 2012 to impose a pseudo-moratorium on all shale gas exploration and development in the St. Lawrence Valley, while permitting the continuance of oil exploration on Anticosti Island, perfectly illustrates this kind of pernicious move, which is essentially appeasing those who lobby against fossil fuels, all the while keeping the door open for industry.
The lack of clarity complicates the exercise of social acceptability, because instead of fostering an open and honest dialogue with those who simply want to see more clearly, it polarizes the debate into two radical camps: in one camp, there are the knee‑jerk opponents who cling to catchphrases like Not in My BackYard (NIMBY) or Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything (BANANA) and, in the other camp, there are those who advocate development anytime and anywhere.
Human nature is what it is and politics will always be politics. Nevertheless, the more clearly defined the evaluation criteria and responsibilities (i.e., “by integrating the 16 main sustainable development principles from the planning phase,” according to Pierre Renaud, counsel at McCarthy Tétrault), the more likely it will be that good projects obtain social acceptability and the bad ones are rejected for the right reasons. After all, isn’t this the real goal of this exercise?