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This Time It Is in My Backyard: Can I Practice What I Preach?


By Wayne Dunn

I’ve spent more than 25 years working on major extractive projects around the world, helping operators and planners to engage and collaborate with local communities and address local concerns, to earn and maintain a ‘social license’ and align community and shareholder interests.

Last week a major liquified natural gas (LNG) project was announced for my backyard: 2.5 miles from my home on Vancouver Island in Canada and right beside where I love to catch prawns and crabs with my little boat.

Major resource project.  In my backyard.

It is a partnership between an indigenous tribe, the Malahat First Nation, and Steelhead LNG of Vancouver.  The project is a floating LNG platform to liquefy natural gas for export to global markets. It is planned for indigenous-owned land just down the shore from my home of nearly 20 years. See the project description here.  On the surface, it seems an ideal example of an indigenous/non-indigenous business partnership: strategic and impactful.

But, for me, suddenly I am not the ‘international expert’ but one of the ‘local stakeholders.'  And already I am being bombarded with outrageous ‘facts’ seeking to ensure I oppose the project.  It is different, but somehow still the same.

Here is what I know.

We don’t know.  So relax.  Despite the claims and the certainty of opponents and proponents, we don’t know the social, environmental or even economic impacts with any degree of certainty. They will become known as things move forward.

I want to stay curious, stay engaged, and let facts and impacts emerge.  We have a regulatory process that I trust will ensure this happens.

The Malahat Tribe is economically marginalized and deserves better.  The Status Quo is not fair.   Surrounded by non-indigenous people who are relatively comfortable economically, the Malahat First Nation has 80 percent unemployment and has somehow been excluded from much of the economic opportunity that has occurred around them over the past 100 years.

Steelhead LNG is impressive.  For some time I’ve admired how Steelhead has engaged and consulted First Nations and developed collaborative partnerships and mechanisms for ensuring local benefit and value from Steelhead’s LNG projects.

Not just sideshow value, but meaningful upside participation and long-term value creation.  It is impressive.  The company has integrated corporate social responsibility (CSR) into its core business strategy.  I was so impressed that I had Steelhead’s CEO address one of my CSR programs.

Opposition helps make the project better.  No project comes out of the gate without room for improvement. The probes, queries and analysis of investors makes the financial and business model stronger.

Similarly, social and environmental opponents and criticism help to identify opportunities to improve social impacts and environmental performance.

Social, environmental and economic optimization will not happen without opposition.  Smart companies find ways to engage with opponents and improve projects.

Viability.  There is no way the project should proceed if it can’t demonstrate financial, social and environmental viability and risk management.  Fortunately our system has processes (financial markets and regulatory structures) that force demonstration of viability and risk management.

Straight truths are rare.  Hyperbole, balderdash and pure bullsh*t are more common.  This comes from opponents and proponents.  This project won’t solve all the social and economic woes of the Malahat Tribe (nobody has said directly that it will).  It also won’t, as the anti-everything crowd so quickly claimed, bring fracking to Vancouver Island or make the Saanich Inlet bathtub-warm.

Please, everyone, let’s have a discussion informed by truths.  No single project will solve decades of economic marginalization. The claims about fracking are so designed to build on other fears.  Fracking happens at the drill hole, not where gas is liquefied.  And, I’m sure science can find a better use for the heat energy by-product of liquefaction than warming up the Saanich Inlet.

We can’t afford to get it wrong.  The process needs to work and inform how/if we can develop it safely. We can’t afford mistakes.  We need it to be the best it can be.  We can’t afford mistakes environmentally. (I want my grandchildren and their grandchildren to be able to catch prawns and enjoy the Saanich Inlet.)  We also can’t afford mistakes economically.

The Malahat Nation created a huge socio-economic development opportunity for themselves; they deserve a chance to see if it can be developed in an acceptable way.

Certainty?  At this stage we don’t really know anything for sure.  Too much certainty is a sign of closed minds and swallowing (or promoting) misinformation.  An informed, vigorous and comprehensive discussion is necessary in order to know if this project makes social, economic and environmental sense.

The world needs energy.  Natural gas is far from the worst form of energy available. (Would you rather the world used unregulated coal?) Let’s have the process inform us, the discussion and the eventual decision on whether and how the project might proceed.

I know I plan to try and stay as curious, as engaged and as open as possible, and to be as wary as possible of the questionable ‘facts’ that will undoubtedly flow from those who enter the process with closed minds and unmovable positions.

Image credits: Wayne Dunn

Wayne Dunn is President & Founder, CSR Training Institute and Professor of Practice in Corporate Social Responsibility, McGill University. You can sign up for the CSR Training Institute newsletter here and read more from him here.

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