Social license works: a rebuttal of Jason Kenney

Angus Reid says Canadian support for Trans Mountain Expansion grew between Feb. and April 2018 as attacks from BC intensified

Who in their right mind thinks David Suzuki or Greenpeace would ever be pro-pipeline? Jason Kenney, apparently.

A recent comment from an Alberta oil and gas executive: “Social license is bullsh*t.” This colourful opinion caught my attention because even though he expresses his views less bluntly, UCP leader Jason Kenney shares it, as does much of the oil patch.

Jason Kenney
Rachel Notley, premier of Alberta.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley doesn’t use the phrase social license much anymore because critics like Kenney have made it radioactive, but back in the early days of her government it meant two things.

One, a pre-condition for federal approval of pipelines.

When he approved the 590,000 b/d Trans Mountain Expnsion pipeline and the 390,000 b/d Line 3 upgrade in 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it wouldn’t have happened without the Alberta Climate Leadership Plan, a point not lost on Notley and company.

“Our climate change policies, including the carbon levy, have helped get a number of pipelines approved,” Matt Dykstra, spokesperson for Shannon Phillips, minister of the environment and climate change, told Energi News in an email.

“Albertans know that our environment and our economy go hand-in-hand. That’s why our Climate Leadership Plan not only reduces emissions but positions our oil and gas industry to continue being a leader.”

Two, social license is aimed at Canada’s pragmatic centre, the silent majority, for whom support of climate and energy transition policies are the basis of support for continued development of oil and gas resources and the construction of energy infrastructure.

Jason Kenney
David Coletto, CEO, Abacus Data.

“Most Canadians believe that climate change is something we need to address. But on the other hand, they don’t want it to hurt too much which I think is always the case with any public policy question,” pollster Dave Colletto, CEO of Abacus Data, told Energi News in an interview earlier this year.

“It’s about finding a balance. That’s certainly what the federal government has tried to do:  a national climate change plan that incentivizes less emissions, but also continuing to build pipelines and make sure that we get value for the resources that we have as this transition [to a low-carbon economy] happens. That’s the key piece.”

Canadians have essentially made a bargain with their governments: address climate change, support the energy transition, and we’ll support oil and gas development, including pipelines.

And it’s working.

An April, 2018 poll by Atrendsngus Reid found that as Premier John Horgan ramped up opposition to Trans Mountain Expansion, public support rose for the project. Abacus polls have chronicled similar results.

That data, however, doesn’t square with Kenney’s political narrative of the job-killing carbon tax.

His strategy has been to claim that social license was intended to end all opposition to the pipeline.

On May 17, 2017 Kenney tweeted that, “NDP said carbon tax would get ‘social license’ for pipelines. What a joke. The tax failed to move a single group from anti to pro pipeline.”

Who in their right mind thinks David Suzuki or Greenpeace would ever be pro-pipeline?

Jason Kenney
Jason Kenney addressing the Energy Relaunch conference.

Nevertheless, misrepresenting social license has been brilliant political messaging for Kenney.

Pollster Janet Brown told Energi News that Notley has misplayed the politics around the carbon tax, allowing the UCP shape the public messaging around carbon pricing.

“They’ve been too focused on the soft, feel-good stuff – improving the environment, making it revenue-neutral, giving people light bulbs, things like that. To the average Albertan, they just don’t see how that is translating into an economic benefit,” Brown said in an interview.

No wonder Kenney’s message of the carbon tax as a job killer resonates. And that success has made the former Conservative MP pretty cocky.

He is now playing hardball, especially with the oil sands companies that supported the Climate Leadership Plan.

“I will call into the premier’s office, the heads of our major energy companies and invite them to discuss a new approach to social license. If they want social license to develop the resources that belong to Albertans, we will expect them to actively defend those resources and the people who work in those companies,” Kenney told a receptive audience at the Energy Relaunch conference in Calgary Thursday. 

He is redefining social license – which is no longer about facilitating federal approval for pipeline projects or fortifying national and regional (read, British Columbia) public support for Trans Mountain Expansion – as industry boosterism.

The same failed communications and political strategy industry trade groups like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers have been flogging for years, but terrific politics for Kenney.

The Alberta industry feels under siege. By positioning himself as its champion, Kenney becomes the white knight of Alberta, the great defender of the province’s economic engine.

Unfortunately, the rest of Canada – which landlocked Alberta relies upon to support its energy infrastructure project – hates boosterism.

“The nature of most Canadians is to embrace the centre, to favour pragmatic solutions over ideological-sounding proposals, and to look for ways to accomplish what needs to be done through consensus and compromise rather than polarization, or zero-sum politics,” says Abacus chairman Bruce Anderson.

Social license as defined by Notley has arguably levered pipeline approvals and fortified Canadian public support for those projects.

Social license as defined by Kenney is a return to Fortress Alberta, a doubling down on the shrill ultimatums that fall on deaf ears outside provincial borders.

One of those approaches is bullsh*t. Alberta needs to think long and hard about which one.

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