As a non-miner in the mining world, Jim Cooney championed the concept of sustainable development and pioneered the application of policies and procedures to improve the industry’s social and environmental performance. His strongly held convictions were controversial in the early 1990s, but eventually found acceptance from major companies that understood the risks of not adapting to changing times. Among them was Placer Dome (later part of Barrick Gold), which gave Cooney the opportunity to introduce sustainable development across its Canadian and international operations. He introduced the term “Social License to Operate” in 1997, which quickly gained prominence in the mining industry and eventually spread to other industry sectors. From the mid-1990s until his retirement in 2006, he was a thought leader in a broad range of national and international forums that helped mining associations and other organizations draft and adopt sustainable development policies and practices.
Cooney initially intended to become an academic. He studied philosophy and political science at Georgetown University and East Asian studies at the University of Toronto. In 1976, he decided to leave academia and was hired by Cominco (now Teck) as a research generalist supporting the company’s strategic planning group.
In 1982 Cooney was hired by Placer Development as manager of government affairs. In 1986, he left Placer for an Interchange Canada assignment as resource policy analyst with the office of the Federal Economic Development Co-ordinator. During that time Placer Development merged with Dome Mines. In 1988, he returned to Placer Dome as director of international and public affairs. His primary responsibility was to assess and help manage social and political risks in the host countries and communities of Placer’s exploration and mining investments.
In 1987, Cooney was inspired by the Brundtland report, Our Common Future, which introduced the world to the concept of sustainable development. Yet he noted that while governments and civil society embraced the vision of the report, mining risked being left behind in a changing policy environment. In publications and speeches, Cooney advocated that mining companies should adopt sustainable development as an integrated strategy for managing social and environmental risks. In 1996, Placer’s CEO, John Willson, agreed with Cooney’s vision and directed him to prepare a corporate sustainable development policy. During a year of consultations, Cooney garnered input from key stakeholder groups and from Placer’s managers and professionals around the world. Placer’s sustainable development policy was thus embedded in the corporate culture as a statement of the values, insights and aspirations of employees at all levels and locations. In 1998, Placer became the first mining company to fully embrace sustainable development in principle and in practice.
Under Cooney’s guidance, Placer implemented two pathfinding sustainability initiatives. The company’s Las Cristinas mine in Venezuela conducted a multi-year project of constructive engagement with artisanal miners, and in South Africa the company undertook a multi-year project of providing employability and medical support to retrenched mineworkers at the company’s South Deep mine. Both projects attracted complementary funding from the Canadian International Development Agency and both received commendations from the World Bank as innovative and instructive approaches to community development by a mining company.
Cooney helped provide the intellectual framework for the practical application of sustainable development and this legacy endures today through standard industry practices such as stakeholder outreach and indigenous consultation. In recognition of his leadership and achievements, Cooney received the CIM’s award for excellence in sustainable development (2011) and AME BC’s Robert H. Hedley award for social and environmental responsibility (2016).