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November 08, 2021 08:53 AM UTC

No Social License

  • 2 Comments
  • by: PKolbenschlag
Tens of thousands pour into the streets of Glasgow Scotland during COP26 to demand immediate climate action and increased accountability for fossil fuel companies.

Social license is a term of art in the world of corporate responsibility, as companies want to claim they have some sort of broad public support to do what they do.

But whether it’s tens of thousands marching in the streets of Glasgow or U.S states, cities and  towns suing Big Oil alleging decades of willful climate and health disinformation: When it comes to oil and gas the writing is on the wall. 

Social license means being open and honest, transparent about plans and about impacts. It also sometimes means accepting “No” as an answer.  And social license certainly means more than an oil and gas company taking its public regulating agency on an exclusive closed-to-the-public tour as has been reported recently happened in western Colorado.

One operator that led such a closed-to-the-public tour with our public agency holds leases and drilling permits in the North Fork headwaters area on and around the Gunnison and Grand Mesa National Forests, in the general vicinity of McClure Pass.  

And this company, which blocked the public as it hosted its public regulating agency, already has a history in the North Fork and around Paonia, where the agency also held a recent “listening session” after this exclusive tour, and to which the public was invited.

A standing-room-only crowd turned out in Paonia to provide feedback and air concerns with the COGCC, Colorado’s public agency responsible for regulating oil and gas to protect human health, public safety and the environment.

Although the majority of public comment at that meeting did not support this activity in our valley, in our water supply areas and on our public lands, a few commenters did.

And almost all those few oil and gas supporters, most of whom came from outside the valley, attested to its public benefit, in other words they gave witness to what they perceived as its “social license.” Needed energy, useful products, good-paying jobs, charitable giving.  The list was familiar to anyone who has been to this sort of meeting. 

But many there, myself included, can speak from specific experience and not merely in platitudes. In my own case, this same operator that hosted the agency which regulates it (apart from any public scrutiny) also leveled a frivolous and vexatious libel lawsuit against me. This company  — owned by a billionaire — was bothered by a substantially true, and widely reported, Facebook comment I left and which it did not like. 

The court action was widely regarded as a SLAPP – a strategic lawsuit against public participation – broadly perceived to be filed against me, in particular, as an outspoken critic of this industry and this company’s plans in the valley 

If the oil and gas industry expects to be embraced as a valued community member, then it needs to start acting like one. Social license means accepting criticism, and embracing public activism. Rich and powerful industries abusing our courts, and individuals with whom they may disagree, is not a path to building community support. An industry operating from a sense of entitlement can almost by definition not be exercising from a position of social license. 

Depiction of the unfortunate if Freudian analogy used by Colorado oil and gas executive to describe the industry’s community engagement strategy.

Addressing the climate crisis and community concerns is not merely an exercise in public-relations “whack-a-mole” as some industry insiders may claim. Toxic exposure, air and water pollution, and industrial impacts are real and really do burden others who live and work in proximity to oil and gas facilities.

The continued burning of fossil fuels is incompatible with future habitability. The only questions we should ask should be around how quickly and how responsibly this industry can transition. 

Obviously, suing members of the public in an attempt to silence critics or denying the public a venue before its own public agency funded with its own public dollars to discuss development of public minerals accessed via public lands and public roads, are not signs of social license (and a likely violation of Colorado’s open meeting law).

The bottom line is there is no social license. The oil and gas industry’s legacy and its own past and on-going actions cannot be so easily papered over with greenwashing slogans or corporate  buzz-words.

Comments

2 thoughts on “No Social License

  1. Thanks, PeteK, for once again exposing the ugly coercion of consumers into bearing the costs ( physical and financial) of corporate polluters. It looks like I’m going to have to get involved in these issues around the new CD8, SD 24 where so far, only Joe Salazar is running. My 6 month old grandson has had a smoker’s cough ever since they moved into the area. 

    The air in Colorado’s newest districts is filthy, some of the worst air quality in the state, fed by Suncor refining in Commerce City, industrial polluters in Derby, and the fracking corridor up through Greeley. 

    A regulated capitalist system should give its “social license” only to corporations that show responsibility and concern for humans and the environment- not just whatever’s cheapest and best advertised. 

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