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The Social Risk: When citizens organize to fight a project

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James  Kent's picture
President, JKA Group

President of JKA Group and Senior Analyst for the Center of Social Ecology and Public Policy. Jim is a global social ecologist and an advocate for using culture-based strategies when introducing...

  • Member since 2013
  • 6 items added with 10,094 views
  • Aug 20, 2013

Those who are responsible for permitting site specific or linear facilities are well aware that, in today's environment of regulatory requirements, polarized politics and litigation, citizen opposition to proposed projects can be daunting. Determined citizens have successful track records of delaying projects, driving up costs, and blocking projects that are technically sound and necessary. To relegate the causes of citizen opposition to a few selfish people who do not want the project in their backyards is to miss the crux of grassroots citizen activism, as China has just recognized with a major policy announcement.

At China's 18th Party Congress in November 2012, the State Council ordered that all major industrial projects must complete a "social risk assessment with stated project impact mitigation schedules" before any project can begin. This move at the highest levels of government is aimed at addressing large, increasingly violent and geographically dispersed environmental protests of the last several years. The announcement was made because of the concern that, if the underlying causes of these protests are not addressed, they have the potential to bring the government down. Zhou Shengxian, the Environmental Minister, said at the news conference, "No major projects can be launched without social risk evaluations. By doing so, I hope we can reduce the number of mass incidents in the future."

Just in the last two weeks of October 2012, violent protests forced the suspension of plans to expand a chemical plant, and protests occurred in every region of China against industrial projects that have been at the core of its economic boom. The promise of jobs and rising incomes is being checkmated by the rising tide of young and middle class Chinese who are fearful that new factories, power line corridors and pipelines are causing environmental damage. Environmental concerns trump the promise of jobs for the first time in China's march to industrialization at all costs. Sound familiar? Does Keystone XL pipeline come to mind, where the demonstrations against TransCanada continue at the national, regional and local levels? There are now over 400 energy-related opposition groups in the United States and 2,000 internationally that are tied together by wireless technology and informal networking who are interrupting and stopping projects across the country.

By virtue of their long-standing practices, companies that are building new infrastructure may, in fact, actually be facilitating more opportunities for the local community to organize. As third party activist groups are able to fine-tune their efforts against projects in general, they become increasingly more likely to take over control of local issues and impede projects, regardless of the benefits to the community. In essence, project owners may be enabling and encouraging the opposition.

Other protests include those against hydraulic fracturing in New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and several other states. Another contentious project is the Atlantic Wind Connection power line that is potentially coming on shore at Assateague Island, a national seashore site that spans across the states of Maryland and Virginia. And on Molokai, the fifth largest island in Hawaii, the Big Wind project is being held hostage by angry citizens.

At the World Gas Conference in June 2012, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson addressed the importance of open communication with leaders at all levels as well as local communities.

The Missing Link

What is missing in the approach to communities in the path of projects that have launched such angry protests here in the United States? At the World Gas Conference in Kuala Lumpur in June 2012, CEOs from ExxonMobil, Shell and Total all addressed the importance of public acceptance in their speeches. Christophe de Margerie, CEO of Total said, "I believe stakeholders will be the main drivers of change. Our business is not sustainable if we are not responsible operators, accepted by all stakeholders, including civil society."

In his keynote address to the conference, ExxonMobil's Rex Tillerson said that his company learned in North America about "the importance of open communication with government leaders at all levels as well as local communities." This announcement is quite a cultural shift for a company like ExxonMobil, and reflects a growing concern nationally that the old ways of centralized project development of plan, design, and build-absent community engagement-is a surefire way of generating citizen opposition and project disaster.

A crucial step that the United States took to avoid the situation that China is now addressing was passing the National Environmental Policy and Environment Act of 1969 (NEPA). NEPA is our national law designed to address anticipated citizen resistance to projects that intrude into people's physical, social and cultural environments. Companies are often surprised to learn that NEPA requires a thorough social impact assessment and mitigation program along with the physical environmental studies. However, this social requirement has all but been lost in NEPA studies. Yet, it is exactly this neglected requirement where a company can actually learn what the real community issues are, and what they can do to address them from the very beginning of a project and throughout the project's life. Companies that are involved with federal agencies must insist that, thorough social assessments and impact mitigation, requirements are met under NEPA.

However, with or without adequate NEPA implementation, it is time for companies to protect their investment by developing and staffing their own independent team of professionals skilled in the science of community. By addressing community-related issues that cause excess budget over-runs and project schedule delays, the team would be responsible for understanding the community's concerns and taking a proactive approach to preventing project disruption by assisting citizens to participate in, predict and control their environment.

The social risk has become too great to not formally recognize and systematically act upon the underlying causes of how and why citizens go from potential healthy participation to organizing to fight a project. Regardless of whether the project is on public or private land, today's projects require and deserve this level of attention.

This article is published with permission of the International Right of Way Association where it first appeared.

Len Gould's picture
Len Gould on Aug 20, 2013
I'm curious. Is the process under NEPA "our national law designed to address anticipated citizen resistance to projects", a democratic process or something else? For example, does a simple majority voting "FOR" a project overrule a minority voting "AGAINST"?
Len Gould's picture
Len Gould on Aug 20, 2013
If the process is democratic, who gets to say which persons have a vote, and by what criteria?
Ferdinand E. Banks's picture
Ferdinand E. Banks on Aug 20, 2013
Nobody is going to convince me that the Chinese government is going to let a few hundred or a few million dissidents upset their plans. No sir, that aint going to happen. And incidentally Mr Kent, an American president starts a war on the basis of a lie, and the voters return him to the White House. Way to go citizns!
Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Aug 20, 2013
Seems to me, as long as you have a political party that caters to the radical minorities (in order to get votes) you will always have progress halted to the detriment of the majority of the population. The Keystone pipeline is an excellent example.

The only viable solution is to vote the Democrats out of office. Barring that, the average citizen will continue to see the cost of energy move ever upwards while their incomes go ever downward down as a result of a whole host of reasons. That is exactly what is occurring now in the US. The nation needs to return to the model where the majority rules, not the minority.

As far as China is concerned, I seriously doubt the government will be dissuaded from their main objectives. There is only one party running the country and they have all the guns and ammunition.

Len Gould's picture
Len Gould on Aug 20, 2013
Yeah Michael. As if the Republican politicians are entirely altruistic and don't " caters to the radical minorities". Only difference is the Republicans respond to the rich minority rather than the thinking minority LOL.
Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Aug 21, 2013
The Republican Party does not cater to radial minorities but they do cater to the elitists in Washington DC.
Garth Barker's picture
Garth Barker on Aug 27, 2013
Its got nothing to do with political alignment; rather everything to do with openness and honesty. I'm an independent consultant and my job is to get ALL stakeholders on board with a project before any plans are laid out in the nepa process. I work with local government, ngos and state government and my success rate is 100 percent. Listening to the peoples concerns is number one and aligning myself with the different groups is number 2. For example one project is a 2 billion dollar pumped storage project in central Utah; during the last public meeting even the Sierra Club voiced support. Respect, honesty, openness and being able to listen to the concerns while being able to provide answers in a timely manner works for me and the people who request my services.
Christopher Kenny's picture
Christopher Kenny on Aug 27, 2013
I think Jim's article is right on point. Regardless of what the Chinese government does or does not do, Jim is correct when he says "it is time for companies to protect their investment by developing and staffing their own independent team of professionals skilled in the science of community. By addressing community-related issues that cause excess budget over-runs and project schedule delays, the team would be responsible for understanding the community's concerns and taking a proactive approach to preventing project disruption by assisting citizens to participate in, predict and control their environment."

I've used a pro-active, structured, and solutions-oriented approach for stakeholder engagement that allows stakeholders (including, of course, the project developer) to create a Solution Set for the issue at hand. This is markedly different than the "take it or leave it" or "hey, what do you think of this great transmission line we've proposed" approach that most companies presently use. Instead, responsible stakeholder leaders are invited to review a problem and its possible solutions from a variety of perspectives, leading to a series of solutions and recommendations concerning the developer's proposed initiative that all stakeholders are willing to support. Examples of these engagements in the utility sector may be found at

Communities care about their quality of life. Providing them a meaningful way to develop solutions that respect a wide range of divergent viewpoints maximizes a company's chances for success - both on the current project and with respect to future endeavors in the same or nearby communities.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Aug 27, 2013
You can only carry on a dialog if folks are rational and willing to listen. There are, in fact, factions (generally radical leftists) who are unwilling to listen and will resort to all manner of actions (including illegal) to stop progress no matter what the community at-large thinks. If the community at large is not on-board with what is being proposed, then you should look elsewhere for building your project.

Please note that the concept of getting all "all-stakeholders" to agree is just plain silly. There is no way in hell 100% acceptance will occur with anything done in the US. Majority rules is a more rational approach.

James  Kent's picture
Thank James for the Post!
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