It has become axiomatic that a social license is a critical success factor for Canadian pipelines. Regulators may permit a pipeline, but on-the-ground consent for a project is a function of communities. Social license is an intangible quality outside of formal regulation, occupying the gap between community expectations and existing laws.

Increasingly, gaining social license is seen as an important aspect of managing environmental and social risks, and the presence or absence of social license affects project budgets, timelines, corporate reputation and even project outcomes. There are regulatory risks to not demonstrating social license; and even with regulatory approval social license may be the difference between legal challenges and none.

Social license is not easy to find, is difficult to measure, and is capricious and dynamic in nature. It is an inherently vague and changeable standard that means different things to different people. Simply defining social license can be a futile enterprise: as with US Supreme Court Justice Stewart’s famous 1964 judgment, we can’t neatly define social license, but we know it when we see it.

The emergence of social media has meant that communities are better engaged, informed, and networked than ever before. Gaining social license happens when trust is built, earned and maintained with communities: it can take a long time to build that trust, and today’s digital citizen expects engagement across many platforms in order for that trust to be maintained.

Though there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to gaining social license, the approach of this paper is to lay out a case-study roadmap for navigating towards it by building relationships, countering misinformation, and mobilizing existing support. The paper will also recognize potential wrong turns such as inattention to social media, lack of transparency or a clear message, and the mistaken belief that regulatory approval is the only approval necessary.

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