Geothermal & Social License: Implications and Considerations for Oil and Gas Engagement

On Monday July 19, a Pivot2021 panel discussion led by Andy Blair from the IGA looked at the implications and considerations of geothermal and social licensing. Social license to operate is a concept that has been used in other extractive industries such as mining and oil and gas for several years, and it has been developed as a framework for stakeholder analysis and management. 

The geothermal sector currently enjoys a broad social license to operate. Historically, geothermal has been accepted by the public and government as a clean energy source and as a result, it is uncommon for stakeholders to lobby against geothermal developments in their communities. Crucially, social license is built on trust, respect, and confidence in the company’s values. Or, as Andy Blair reminds us—social license is about people.  

This panel discussion posits: what would happen if geothermal developments quickly scaled and the entities developing the resources are no longer small and locally known, but instead are multi-national oil & gas companies? And as the oil and gas industry pivots towards geothermal development, how can the geothermal sector retain the culture, goodwill and reputation it currently enjoys?  

Panellists agree that communication and transparency are key for oil and gas companies to build trust and relationships with communities in geothermal development. For Neil Maddison from The Conservation Foundation, real community engagement will occur when there is meaningful exchange and open dialogue. The practice of business transparency is not a given, and as Andy Blair indicates there is a conflict between good stakeholder engagement and good business.  

The reality of diverse stakeholder values and interests cannot be neglected either. Bruce Hill from Clean Air Task Force urges us to listen to both and all sides. He rightly points out that “communities are not monolithic. Industry must ensure community members benefit fairly from the energy source.” Of course, not all stakeholders will be mobilised by decarbonisation, for others it will be about the creation of jobs.   

For geothermal projects, the two main questions which arise from stakeholders are: first, is the geothermal project legitimate in its environment and current context? Second, are the project implementation conditions acceptable? Laurent Jammes from Universe and Earth Sciences Institute, reminds us these questions must be debated with stakeholders, and to some extent co-constructed through stakeholder engagement process. He emphasises, “social license has to be gained and preserved throughout the lifespan of a project.” Social license is challenging to win and easy to lose.  

Allyson Book from Baker Hughes therefore advises companies “to embrace the role of the active public.” This means going beyond dialogue and ensuring the stakeholders affected by the social and environmental impacts of a project are given these active roles. Laurent Jammes goes on further to say stakeholders must be included in trying to define the mitigation actions that need to be implemented.   

These points are especially relevant considering the biggest non-technical challenge to the development of new geothermal resources comes in the form of opposition from local stakeholders. 

Allyson Book makes the case for exposing communities to the technology of a project to illustrate how it will lead to clean energy production. She uses the example of a mining company inviting members of the community to understand the technological solution for shifting to another type of mining. In this case, they participated through a mock simulation of that piece of machinery that enabled the community to witness how the company was moving into a new and more sustainable direction. 

There is also a very important backend of social license that may be forgotten according to Allyson Book. She reminds us the state in which an organisation leaves a community at the end of a project lifespan will be crucial for securing social license in the next projects. For this reason, reputation does matter.  

Lastly, collaboration is key to envisioning the geothermal landscape in the next ten years. According to Bruce Hill, it needs to be a “broad societal vision and one that cannot happen by industry level alone.” He urges us to not think about winner and losers, but to work together towards a common goal. 

For the full PIVOT21 panel discussion: Geothermal & Social License: Implications and Considerations for Oil and Gas Engagement 

For further reading from the panelists: 

Handout from Andi Blair 

Handout from Allyson Book 

Handout from Bruce Hill