The phrase “social licence” seems to have made a late push to become New Brunswick’s political catchphrase of 2014.

The line has appeared twice in the last two weeks in reference to two different energy issues.

Premier Brian Gallant says gaining social licence will be one of the five conditions hydraulic fracturing will have to meet if his government is to lift its moratorium on the technique.

Steve Moran, the chief executive officer of Corridor Resources, says it’s a frustratingly vague concept that he doesn’t know how to achieve.

"Even the premier when he was asked didn't really have an answer in terms of what that mean," Moran told CBC News.

At the news conference where Gallant announced the moratorium legislation, he told a reporter who asked for a definition that “the question is a good one.”

“What really is a social licence, and how do you define that? We recognize that it is hard to define,” he said.

Opposition Leader Bruce Fitch

Opposition Leader Bruce Fitch said Gallant cannot define what social licence means when it is applied to his hydraulic fracturing moratorium. (CBC)

“We’ll certainly do the best we can to get the pulse, and the sense of New Brunswickers on whether these operations … have a social licence.”

The phrase has been popular among environmentalists and activists who oppose fossil fuel energy projects.

But it’s also been used by shale gas development supporters, such as former premier Frank McKenna.

The opposition Progressive Conservatives believe Gallant has chosen the term precisely because it is so vague.

"He can't define what social licence is,” Opposition Leader Bruce Fitch told the legislature last week.

“Therefore he can't fulfill that condition and therefore the ban will never be lifted."

Social licence and pipeline politics

Certainly the phrase is subject to a range of interpretations — as Gallant himself has shown in recent weeks.

Justin Trudeau 20141203

Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau told a Quebec newspaper recently that the proposed Energy East pipeline hasn’t gained “social licence.” (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

His federal ally, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, told the newspaper La Presse recently that the proposed Energy East pipeline, which would transport crude oil from Alberta to New Brunswick for export, hasn’t gained “social licence.”

Trudeau defined the idea as TransCanada, the pipeline proponent, “demonstrating they can do it responsibly … with the level of transparency and scientific rigour that people expect.”

“They’re not there yet,” Trudeau added.

“Far from it.”

Gallant said Trudeau’s comments didn’t mean he was against the project.

“I think he supports it,” the premier said.

"I think he's just commenting on something that we all know, that you need to ensure that communities have the chance to be heard."

Social licence on other projects

But Fitch told the legislature last week that shale gas development has as much social licence as the pipeline, a proposed liquefied natural gas export terminal in Saint John and the proposed Sisson Brook mine.

The phrase was even invoked during a debate in the legislature on abortion.

David Alward

Woodstock Tory MLA David Alward also raised the social licence issue in terms of the provincial government's changes to abortion regulations. (CBC)

The Progressive Conservatives introduced a motion calling for a public debate on Gallant’s change to regulations to remove what the Liberals call barriers to the procedure.

Former PC premier David Alward told the legislature that even by Gallant’s vague definition of “social licence,” the Liberals haven’t met the standard on abortion.

"They're moving forward even though there isn't social licence. It is an issue that is divisive,” Alward said in an interview.

"It certainly was hypocritical of the premier, of the government, using the social licence issue on one hand [on shale gas] and on the other moving forward without consultation, without any opportunity for engagement such as even posting the regulations that are to be in place before Jan. 1."

That’s a reference to the former Alward government’s practice of posting proposed regulations and regulations on a government website for 30 days to let the public have input, a practice the Liberals have abandoned.

Whether that constitutes social licence is open to debate — but so, apparently, is the meaning of the phrase in general.

That makes it likely that the notion of “social licence” that’s become all the rage in the waning days of 2014 is likely to stick around and provoke more debate in 2015.