By September 13, 2017 Read More →

Waning Canadian support for oil, pipelines a big political problem for Alberta industry

If Canadians foresee a future without oil and pipelines, for how long will they continue to support Alberta ambitions?

How Alberta should talk to other provinces – think British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec – where it needs to build pipelines is a hot topic in our social media world these days. A new public opinion poll from Abacus Data provides insight into why the extreme conservative language used by so many in the oil and gas industry actual helps Alberta’s eco-activist and indigenous opponents.

Bruce Anderson of Abacus Data polling firm. Photo: Abacus Data.

Abacus Data randomly chose 2,036 Canadians from a representative panel of over 500,000 aged 18 and over for an online survey in early August.

The results aren’t good news for a business as usual scenario in the Alberta oil patch.

“What we are seeing in our numbers now is an evolution of opinion: concerns about climate change have deepened, and belief that the world is going to transition away from oil has grown,” Bruce Anderson, chairman of Abacus, said in a press release.

On a national level, equal numbers think demand for oil will be rising (31%) as believe it will be falling (32%).

The news gets worse for Alberta 30 years out, when a majority (57%) say oil demand will be falling, while only 22 per cent think it will still be increasing.

To make matters worse, the percentage of Canadians who are pessimistic about oil is increasing rapidly, according to Abacus, which regularly surveys national attitudes toward oil, natural gas, and pipelines.

And that includes Albertans: 38 per cent like the idea of demand for oil declining in 10 years, while only 10 per cent prefer it to increase (30 years out, those percentage change to 48% and 20% respectively).

With oil falling out of favour, more Canadians are hopping on the renewable energy band wagon. They expect that wind, solar, wave and tidal, and hydro will make up much larger percentages of Canada’s energy mix.

But that doesn’t mean Canadians don’t support oil and gas development.

As I wrote a year ago in my column about an earlier version of this poll, “In typical Canadian style, voters have moved away from a binary debate with Alberta and Saskatchewan demanding tidewater access for their oil and BC, Ontario, and Quebec opposing energy infrastructure, to a compromise position where progress on climate change policies and clean energy technologies is the prerequisite for public approval of pipelines.”

That observation is more true today than it was a year ago, with one exception.

While negative feelings about pipelines haven’t increased, those reporting positive feelings have dropped from 58 per cent in 2014 to 44 per cent, with a corresponding increase in the undecideds from 20 per cent three years ago to 36 per cent today.

The Canadian public is getting more and more antsy about oil and pipelines. Not enough to significantly change the link between pipeline support and energy transition policies I wrote about last year, but there are cracks showing.

Big ones.

For now, the country is broadly behind the energy infrastructure Alberta so desperately needs.

“Canadians remain broadly inclined to believe that the right strategy for the country is to continue to harness our petroleum resources and to build pipeline capacity if needed, even while ramping up investments and policies that will see the country shift towards more reliance on renewable forms of energy,” said Anderson.

The danger is that public sentiment continues to shift away from oil and pipelines.

Dave Collyer, long-time Shell Canada executive for former president and CEO of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, told me during an interview in May that the window for new pipelines in Canada is probably open for only another two to three years.

After that there is a very good chance Canadian attitudes will have become even more negative, drifted even further from today’s compromise of supporting pipelines in exchange for energy transition and climate change support.

“Maybe the strongest signal of all, for governments, is the widespread feeling, including in Alberta, that Canada should not stand apart from the race to innovate with cleaner forms of energy, due to a reliance on oil,” argues Anderson.

“Canadians sense both an environmental and moral urgency and an economic wave that they want to be part of as well.”

Alberta can’t ignore that sense of urgency about oil and pipelines that appears to be steadily growing.

But the more pressing urgency in the short-term is for Alberta to build bridges with other provinces in which new pipelines might be built.

The most pressing is British Columbia, where Kinder Morgan is gearing up to begin construction of Trans Mountain Expansion this month, while First Nation, municipal, provincial government, and eco-activist opponents are preparing numerous campaigns and protests to stop it.

All without a significant industry presence participating within the provincial public narrative that could counter its foes and build a coalition of allies.

And there are plenty of potential allies in BC. The Abacus survey shows 27 per cent of British Columbians support or strongly support Trans Mountain Expansion, while another 29 per cent could support it with conditions.

Well, they might be allies if Alberta conservative politicians – hello, Jason Kenney and Brian Jean – didn’t frequently throw verbal bricks at the West Coast because of the fierce opposition to Kinder Morgan.

And if industry types toned down the apocalyptic rhetoric – Terry Etam in the BOE Report today referred to the NEB’s “banana-republic grade assassination” of the Energy East pipeline project – and spent more time West of the Rockies engaged in building bridges in Vancouver and Burnaby.

I’ve written many columns about how Alberta is sabotaging its own interests in British Columbia. The Abacus Data survey shows that there isn’t much time left to fix the problem.

Posted in: Markham on Energy

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