In late May, the federal government made a deal to purchase the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline and expansion project. The goal of these acquisitions was to demonstrate Ottawa’s commitment to the project, the industry and its allies in the Alberta Government. The pipeline received federal government approval in 2016, but a key court decision has put the project in limbo once again. The Federal Court of Appeal decision requires the National Energy Board to conduct a new review of the project, and also means the federal government will have to redo some of its consultations with Indigenous groups.
Speaking in British Columbia before the decision was released, the Prime Minister reiterated his government’s position that economic development and environmental protection go together: “The only way to build a strong economy moving forward is to protect the environment, and ensuring that we are protecting the environment for future generations is deep priority of mine.”
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley is resolute on the project – “mark my words,” she has said, “that pipeline will be built” – and insistent that support for the pipeline is not tantamount to disregard for the environment. She has argued that under its climate leadership plan, her province “has capped emissions – that means that with or without the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, greenhouse gas emissions will not increase.” In reaction to the court decision, however, Premier Notley has pulled Alberta out of the federal climate change plan.
Where do Canadians stand on resource development and environmental protection? Our research suggests that many Canadians are aligned with the Prime Minister and Premier Notley in seeing these as complementary rather than competing forces.
According to our surveys, more Canadians support than oppose the oil sands development and the active pipeline proposals: Keystone to the south, Trans Mountain to the west. In both cases, nearly six in 10 support the pipelines and a little more than four in 10 are opposed. Albertans are the most supportive and Quebecers the least, with other Canadians between the two. Given the B.C. government’s energetic opposition to a pipeline running from Alberta to the B.C. coast, some might be surprised to learn that a majority of British Columbians support both oil sands development and new pipelines, including the Trans Mountain expansion.
A majority of Canadians believes that a lack of pipeline capacity harms Canada’s economy. Those who support the oil sands and pipelines do so based on the economic benefits and jobs, as well as the expectation that the environment will be protected amid the development activity.
A similar majority of Canadians also believe the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion should proceed despite the objections of the B.C. government. Here again, a slight majority of British Columbians are on board with the development – even if their government disagrees.
Our research also shows that Alberta’s “social licence” gambit was paying off to some extent. A majority in all provinces except Alberta believe that that province’s climate leadership plan was a step in the right direction, and three in 10 nationally say it made them more likely to support new pipelines.
The majority of Canadians agrees with the federal government’s belief that economic vitality and environmental protection support each other instead of being mutually opposed. Three quarters of Canadians think that protecting the environment improves economic growth and provides new jobs, while only about one quarter believe that environmental protection reduces economic growth and costs jobs. Canadians want to see a new pipeline built to help the economy, and they also believe that can be done while providing reasonable protection of the environment.
The context for all these attitudes is a sense that the economy is the most important thing on the Canadian agenda. When asked what they see as the most important issues facing the country, a plurality of Canadians (about one in four) mentions the economy and jobs. Fewer than one in 10 mention issues such as health care, immigration and refugees, poor government or the environment.
The federal government was in sync with the public when buying the pipeline to support the national economy. The Notley government was also aligned with Canadian attitudes on the environment and the economy – even if they don’t get sufficient credit at home. But neither fact means smooth sailing. The federal appeals court decision has put a significant wrench in the works for the Trudeau government, and with Alberta pulling out of the national climate strategy, it is hard to know where public opinion will go. On top of that, the potential remains for the Notley government to be swept from power, regardless of what Canadians outside Alberta think about its efforts to promote economic development through climate leadership.
Tony Coulson is Group VP, Corporate & Public Affairs at Environics Research