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Shale Gas and Pipeline:  Without Social Acceptability, no Lift-Off

By : Christine Duchaine and Marie-Pier Goyette Noël 
Published in : « Premières en affaires » .February- March 2015

The recent sagas surrounding the oil harbour project in Cacouna and the shale gas industry have clearly demonstrated that a lack of social acceptability will put any project in jeopardy.  The oil and gas industry in Quebec has certainly learned this the hard way over the past few years.  Since this principle applies to any project that may have an impact on the environment, we believe that businesses should remember valuable lessons for the future. 

These events clearly show that communication with the population has become a key element to any development project.   The time where projects were evaluated and authorized without divulging the details and possible environmental impacts to the public seems to be definitely gone.  Whether it be a small or large project, social acceptability can mean the difference between success and failure.   

Taking the specific case of the shale gas industry, the lack of transparency will have caused its demise.  Following the arrival, in 2006, of wells  using the "hydraulic fracturing" method, the population probed the industry for information in order to better understand this new drilling method, the type of fluids used as well as the possible risks for the underground water quality.  Faced with the industry's complete silence, a citizen mobilization was born and Quebec's Bureau d'audiences publiques sur l'environnement (BAPE) was given the mandate to shed some light on the matter.

The BAPE's first report, in February 2011, underlined the lack of available information regarding this industry and, more importantly, that social acceptability was far from present.  The BAPE therefore recommended that a Strategic Environmental Assessment be conducted in regards to the shale gas industry. 

Following this assessment, the provincial government as well as key players came to this  conclusion: social acceptability of the shale gas industry was an essential requirement to the continuance of this project.  The government therefore requested that the BAPE hold a public hearing in order to measure, among other things, social acceptability.   The BAPE's report, submitted around the end of 2014, was unequivocal on this subject: social acceptability is far from won. 

The government immediately reacted by announcing that no certificate of authorization would be produced in regards to shale gas exploration projects in the St-Lawrence Lowlands.   This marked the end, until further notice, of the shale gas adventure in Quebec.  

As far as the pipeline project is concerned, the release of the promoter's communication strategy, aimed at manipulating public opinion in order to obtain social acceptability, was very ill-perceived by the population and created a general outcry against the entire project. 

It must therefore be concluded that an effective communication strategy is key in obtaining the population's approval.   Michael Binnion, president of the Quebec Oil and Gas Association admitted, in 2014, that his organization was somewhat flawed in that sense, stating that "Our industry's strong suit is not communications".   "It is technical.   There is room for us to improve our communication skills."

What happened with the shale gas industry and the pipeline project demonstrates the possible consequences of a lack of prior consultation when developing a project as well as the importance of a transparent and efficient communications plan.  Good communication therefore constitutes the key element to a project's social acceptability and, ultimately, to its viability.

Every business, whichever they are, must remember that a lack of transparency is likely to result in the public's distrust and that in turn this distrust can trigger a citizen mobilization against a project that might prove difficult and in some cases impossible to overturn.   Therefore, the sooner citizens and municipalities are involved in a communication process with a promoter, the easier it will be to avoid a popular outcry and the more likely we are to obtain the required authorizations.   There is no way around it; this approach is win-win!