Hydraulic Fracturing, Newspaper Coverage, and Social License to Operate

We have been hard at work transforming research originally prepared for our report for Canadian Water Network into a series of interdisciplinary peer-reviewed publications. The first of what we hope will be a trilogy of articles was published today in the open access journal Sustainability. The article — “Comparative Analysis of Hydraulic Fracturing Wastewater Practices in Unconventional Shale Development: Newspaper Coverage of Stakeholder Concerns and Social License to Operate” — was co-authored by an interdisciplinary team, including Joel Gehman (professor at the University of Alberta, Department of Strategic Management & Organization), Dara Y. Thompson (former M.Sc. student at the University of Alberta, Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology), Daniel S. Alessi (professor at the University of Alberta, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences), Diana M. Allen (professor at Simon Fraser University, Department of Earth Sciences), Greg G. Goss (professor at the University of Alberta, Department of Biological Sciences).

The starting point for the overall project was the conceptualization of the hydraulic fracturing wastewater context as comprised of three potentially interrelated spheres of action (Figure 1). By delineating between operator practices, regulatory requirements, and stakeholder concerns, our goal was to better understand the extent to which these different spheres affected one another, if at all. In essence, we conceptualized the hydraulic fracturing wastewater context as a dynamic process in which any one sphere has the potential to influence the other two. Relative to the overall conceptual framework, this article focuses on one of these spheres specifically: stakeholder concerns.

Figure 1. Conceptualization of the hydraulic fracturing wastewater context.

In this article, we review prior literature regarding the concept of social license to operate, and related concepts, including corporate social responsibility, sustainable development, stakeholder management and cumulative effects. Informed by these concepts, we search for newspaper articles published in North American provinces and states where the Barnett, Duvernay, Marcellus and Montney shale plays are located. Using these data, we tabulate coverage of stakeholder concerns related to hydraulic fracturing and wastewater practices, and compare the extent to which these concerns vary over place and time. Our vocabulary analyses identify differences in the types and quantities of newspaper coverage devoted to concerns regarding hydraulic fracturing activities in general and wastewater practices in particular. We interpret these differences as suggesting that obtaining a social license to operate is likely not a one size fits all proposition. By understanding which stakeholder concerns are most salient in particular places and times, oil and gas operators and regulators can better tailor their strategies and policies to address local concerns. In other words, the findings from this study indicate that conventional understandings of risk as a technical or economic problem may not be adequate for dealing with unconventional resource challenges such as hydraulic fracturing. Operators and regulators may also need to manage social and cultural risks.