Social License to Operate at the Local Level: A Case Study of Surface-Owner Negotiations with Coalbed Methane Companies in the Powder River Basin, Wyoming

Authors: Kathryn Bills Walsh*, Montana State University, Julia H. Haggerty, Montana State University
Topics: Energy, Natural Resources, Qualitative Research
Keywords: Energy, reclamation, social license to operate, Wyoming
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/12/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Evergreen, Sheraton, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This is a case of how the social license to operate (SLO) is granted to industry at the most local level, the scale of the individual. An SLO exists when an industrial project garners support and does not face continued opposition to their activities. SLO is often conceptualized around community response to a large-scale industrial project. However, this paper examines the individual negotiations made that act to grant a mineral developer (industry) an SLO from a surface-owner. A case study of landowners that have experienced coalbed methane development on their property in the Powder River Basin, Wyoming will be presented. Drawing on an extensive review of the scientific literature and sixteen stakeholder interviews with surface-owners and oil and gas attorneys, we argue that in contractual negotiations, surface-owners leverage the industry’s desire for immediate access by including additional items in the contract and collaborating to have input regarding the placement of wells and associated infrastructure. This is done with foresight, on the part of the surface-owner, for how this infrastructure can be put to beneficial use and integrated into the ranching operation post-extraction. However, considering that energy production sites should be reclaimed for ecosystem health, to meet legal requirements, and because of the cumulative surface disturbance caused by energy production, surface-owner decisions to integrate infrastructure as opposed to requiring complete reclamation reinforces industry’s ability to pass environmental consequences onto other spatial and temporal scales. In effect, this creates a cycle that legitimizes industry’s ability to escape their environmental liabilities.

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