This post isn’t based on a poll I’ve conducted or some rigorous methodology, rather it has evolved out of conversations I’ve had with friends, thought leaders I’ve run into, articles I’ve read and polls I’ve seen in passing.
As most people know the development of the oil sands is a thorny issue in Canada. The federal government is sweeping aside environmental regulations, labeling environmentalist groups terrorists and money launderers and overriding processes developed to enabled people to express their concerns.
What’s the public make of all this?
Polls generally seem to have the country split. Canadians are not opposed to natural resource development (how could we be?) but they are also worried about the environment (I’m not claiming enough to act). In this regard the Nik Nanos poll from March is instructive. Here most Canadians place environmental concerns (4.24 out of 5) ahead of economic prosperity (3.71 out of 5). There are of course polls that say the opposite. The normally reliable Ipsos Reid has a Canadian Chamber of Commerce poll which asks “it is possible to increase oil and gas production while protecting the environment at the same time.” As if Canadians know! I certainly don’t know the answer to that question. What I do know is that I’d like it to be possible to increase oil and gas productions while protecting the environment at the same time. This, I suspect, is what people are really saying: “Yes! I’d like to have my cake and eat it to. Go figure out the details.” This does not mean it is possible. Just desirable.
So on a superficial level, I suspect that most Canadians think the oil sands are dirty. Their are of course the outlining camps: the die hard supporters and die hard opposers, but I’m not talking about them. Most Canadians are, at their core, uncomfortable with the oil sands. They know it is bad for the environments and may be good for the economy. That doesn’t mean they are opposed, it just doesn’t mean they aren’t happy either.
But here’s the rub.
I think most Canadians feel like the oil sands is an Alberta issue. Ultimately, many don’t care if it is dirty, many don’t care if it doesn’t benefit them. So long as the issue is confined within Alberta’s borders and it’s an Alberta problem/opportunity then they are happy to give them a free hand. I’ve been comparing it to French Language laws in Quebec. You’d be hard pressed to find many Canadians who strongly agree with them. They understand them. They get why they matter to Quebec. And frankly, they’ve given up caring. As long as the issue is confined within Quebec it’s “domestic politics” and they accept it now as fact.
Of course, the moment the issue stretches outside of Alberta, the gloves are off. Take the pipeline proposal for example. I suspect that support for the Gateway pipeline, especially after the Keystone pipeline is approved, will likely disintegrate. Barbara Yaffe beat me to the punch with her column “What’s in Pipeline Expansion for BC?” which articulated exactly where I think BC is going. Already opinion polls show opposition to the pipeline is growing. Anyone knows that the moment a tanker strikes ground off the coast of BC you have a $1B problem on your hand. Most BCers are beginning to ask why they should put their tourism and fishing industries at risk and be left footing the bill for environmental damage on oil that Alberta is making money off of? A couple hundred jobs a year in benefits isn’t going to cut it.
What’s worse is that it is almost impossible to imagine that Keystone won’t get approved this time around. As a result, Alberta will have it’s pipeline out and so the major source of concern – a way to get the oil out – will have been satisfied. Building a pipeline through BC is now no longer essential. It is a bonus. It is all about getting a extra $30 premium a barrel and, of course, satisfying all those Chinese investors. BCers will be even more confused about why they have to absorb the environmental risks so that their neighbor can get rich.
This is also why the provincial NDP’s formal opposition to the pipeline is clever. While it cites environmental concerns and does use tough language it does not draw a hard line in the sand. Rather, it concludes “that the risks of this project (the Northern Gateway Pipeline) far outweigh its benefits.” Implicit in this statement is that if the benefits were to increase – if say, Alberta were to pay a percentage of the royalties to BC – then their position could change as well. In other words – you want us to accommodate your language politics in our province? We may so “no” anyway, but if we say yes… it is going to cost you.
All of this is further complicated by the fact that Alberta’s history of playing well with other provinces on issues of national interest is not… spectacular (remember the Alberta firewall?). Alberta has often wanted to go it alone – that is, indeed, part of its brand. I suspect most of the rest of the country has neither the inclination nor the care to stop them, just like they didn’t with Quebec. But that doesn’t mean they are going to get a helping hand either.