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Canada’s resource industries need to reboot their message

In response to a recent shareholder question, Athabasca Oil Corp. chief executive Rob Broen is reported to have stated, “Near as I can tell, we have a tax – we have a carbon tax – but we don’t have a pipeline and the opponents of those pipelines are more entrenched than they’ve ever been.” Mr. Broen was expressing frustration about the apparent fraying of what many understood as the grand bargain of oil sands development. The bargain was that governments would impose carbon taxes and regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and control environmental impacts, while producers would get infrastructure (pipelines) that would let them carry the product to international markets and fetch better prices.

Today, the carbon tax and other environmental measures are a reality, but environmentalists continue to fight the pipeline, and Kinder Morgan, the pipeline’s proponent, has pointedly announced that it’s pausing investment in the project.

Is it surprising that protesters are protesting, despite their policy victories on a carbon tax and other regulations? Not really. In the energy development/environment debate, as on many other issues, minorities at both extremes are vocal and unlikely to change their minds. In the case of oil sands development, about 3 per cent of Canadians consider themselves full-fledged supporters and advocates for oil sands development, while another 15 per cent are strong supporters but not advocates. Conversely, about 3 per cent are fully opposed to and advocating against the oil sands, while 16 per cent are strongly opposed but not advocates against. Canadians’ views on pipelines correlate closely with their views on the oil sands in general, so the numbers on pipelines are likely in the same range. (As a means of transporting oil, Canadians favour pipelines, seeing them as safer than trucks or rail.)

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Most Canadians – about 60 per cent – fall somewhere in between the committed supporters and committed opponents of oil sands development. These Canadians recognize that there are economic benefits to oil development and export, but have concerns about the environment and about public health and safety – and are not about to abandon those concerns. Although those who already support the industry find economic arguments about energy development powerful, the six in 10 Canadians in the middle don’t find the economic case persuasive unless they’re also convinced that the environment and public health will be protected.

If one follows this logic, the federal and Alberta governments may not be interested in courting the votes of hard-core environmentalists, who, like David Suzuki, find them too soft on the environment, or those of the hard-core industry supporters who can’t bring themselves to support a “job-killing carbon tax.” They might be aiming to hit a sweet spot with the quiet majority that wants to see economic development balanced with environmental protections.

Some in the industry might do themselves a favour by changing their focus. Continuing to argue with environmental activists is not an effective way forward. And continuing to talk up the economics of the oil sands and pipelines will only work with the base: those who are already pro-development.

Maintaining or growing support among the six in 10 Canadians who don’t already hold strong views on these issues will require speaking to their concerns in ways that resonate with them – perhaps by learning about their values and crafting messages that fit.

Simplicity also helps. Research has shown that it’s best to break complex arguments down into shorter communications. If messages resonate with people’s values, informational short cuts can be okay; people don’t need every detail if the source is honest and credible, and they have a sense of shared interests.

You get people’s attention by showing that you understand their concerns and can speak effectively to them – because you know that their apprehensions matter. Simply repeating your own priorities can be ineffective or worse.

Tony Coulson is group VP Corporate & Public Affairs at Environics.

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