VANCOUVER, B.C. — When it comes to major infrastructure projects such as pipelines, much is made about how proponents must obtain "social licence" - support for a project from the people who live in or near the project's location.
During last year's federal election, the Liberals stated: "While governments grant permits for resource development, only communities can grant permission." But as critics have pointed out, who decides when social licence is granted?
Which brings us to Fort St. John in British Columbia's Peace River region, where an interesting experiment in demonstrating social licence is unfolding.
Fort St. John has long been the hub for B.C.'s natural gas sector, servicing the gas fields and assorted pipelines that feed the resource to homes and businesses across the province. It is to B.C.'s natural gas industry what Fort McMurray is to Alberta's oilsands.
But the collapse in oil and gas prices has battered Fort St. John. Jobs have dried up and unemployment has soared. That's left the community looking at B.C.'s proposed liquefied natural gas export industry as a source of future prosperity. In particular, they want the federal government to approve the PETRONAS-backed Pacific NorthWest LNG project, a planned $36-billion export terminal to be built near Prince Rupert that would source its natural gas from the region surrounding Fort St. John.
However, the project is snarled in regulatory red tape, awaiting an environmental certificate. Once the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency completes its review, expected in June, it will be up to the federal cabinet to give the project its final approval.
But rather than quietly waiting for Ottawa's decision, Fort St. John residents are coming together, boldly and loudly declaring their support for PNW LNG, in effect granting social licence.
It began with the formation of a group, FSJ for LNG, a Facebook page, and a truck rally in March that featured more than 600 trucks adorned with signs and placards in support of LNG development parading down the Alaska Hwy. They followed that with public rallies, including one in April attended by B.C. Premier Christy Clark. Now they plan to travel to Ottawa, along with supporters from Fort Nelson and Prince Rupert, to deliver a petition supporting LNG development and reinforce the community support.
Local politicians are also on side. Fort St. John Mayor Lori Ackerman travelled to Ottawa with a group of northern B.C. mayors in April, meeting with key Liberal ministers to make the case for a B.C. LNG industry. FSJ for LNG has the support of Liberal MLA Pat Pimm and Conservative MP Bob Zimmer.
The FSJ for LNG organizers say they need to make their voices heard; they need to show Ottawa that the community supports and wants the LNG projects. "It's about time the federal decision makers hear the voice of the unemployed here in Fort St. John and northern B.C.," FSJ for LNG organizer Alan Yu recently told the Alaska Highway News.
But they face a formidable challenge as many of the well-funded environmental activists are campaigning hard to ensure the project doesn't go ahead. The fear is Ottawa will listen to the anti-fossil-fuel activists, not the people working and living in northern B.C.
"I have no doubt that the environmentalists will not stop their delay tactics until they drive (the) Canadian economy into the ground. But FSJ for LNG is fighting back," Yu wrote in a column for the Alaska Highway News.
In what seems to be an increasingly polarized debate on energy projects, is the civic activism exhibited in Fort St. John now required for rural communities that support and want natural resource projects? Are there lessons here for other resource-based communities, be they in Alberta, Saskatchewan, northern Ontario or Atlantic Canada? Do New Brunswick communities that want the Energy East pipeline need to mount similar campaigns of support?
With Fort St. John showing its support for LNG, it appears the social licence is there. The question is, will Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet listen?
Dean Pelkey is a Vancouver-based communications consultant.