Improving People’s Lives: Social License To Operate
- Nathan Meehan (2016 SPE President)
- Document ID
- Society of Petroleum Engineers
- Journal of Petroleum Technology
- Publication Date
- March 2016
- Document Type
- Journal Paper
- 10 - 11
- 2016. Copyright is retained by the author. This document is distributed by SPE with the permission of the author. Contact the author for permission to use material from this document.
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“You don’t get your social license by going to a government ministry and making an application for one, or simply paying a fee. … It requires far more than money to truly become part of the communities in which you operate.” Pierre Lassonde, President of Newmont Mining Corp., 2003
There is widespread acceptance that extraction industries— including oil and gas—improve people’s lives and enable the economic growth of countries. However, at the project level, this acceptance is neither automatic nor unconditional.
The concept of a social license to operate (SLO) has been applied to extraction industries and has been defined as “a community’s perceptions of the acceptability of a company and its local operations” by Thomson and Boutilier (2011). Community can be very broadly defined to include stakeholders and interested parties well outside the immediate areas of operations, or “any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the organization’s objectives” (Mitchell et al. 1997).
SLO is deemed to exist when a project has ongoing approval of the community. For any project to have SLO, it is necessary to earn and maintain the support—and ultimately trust—of the community. We have seen ample evidence, including in our own industry, that failure to do this can lead to conflict, delays, added costs, or even prohibition of projects. Because it is rooted in beliefs and perceptions, SLO is intangible. Beliefs and perceptions are subject to change with new information; SLO is nonpermanent. This presents challenges for companies who want to know the status of their SLO and what they need to do to maintain or improve it.
Thomson and Boutilier developed a framework to measure beliefs, perceptions, and opinions that impact social license in the mining industry and published quantitative assessments of their framework. Fig. 1 represents their model and serves as a useful starting point for a discussion of SLO in the upstream oil and gas industry.
Measuring Social License
According to the Thomson and Boutilier framework, SLO exists in a four-level hierarchy, with withholding or withdrawal at the lowest level, followed by acceptance, approval, and coownership, or psychological identification. To advance in the hierarchy, the project must meet criteria of legitimacy, credibility, and trust.
At the lowest level, SLO does not exist, and projects cannot proceed; the community perceives them as illegitimate. To be considered legitimate, an extraction operation must contribute to the well-being of the community, respect existing traditions and lifestyles, and be conducted in a manner the community considers fair. If the extraction project is not considered legitimate, the community either withholds or withdraws access— including legal license—to essential resources. Drilling permits fall under this category, as do restrictions prohibiting hydraulic fracturing imposed by a government. The social license to operate also can be withheld or withdrawn by removing essential financing, workforce availability, markets, etc. Examples of social licenses that have been withheld in our industry are the development of the Marcellus Shale in New York and development of unconventional resources in France. The driver for these licenses failing to rise to the level of acceptance is not primarily the complaints of local residents who could be directly affected by activity, but a larger concern at state or national levels arising from fears about hydraulic fracturing.The next-higher level of social license is acceptance. This is the most common level in the SLO hierarchy. It may be granted grudgingly or reluctantly by parts of the community. Importantly, this level is just one level above the social license being withdrawn. While acceptance implies tolerance, there may be lingering or recurring issues, the presence of outside nongovernmental organizations, and watchful monitoring.
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