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For the past several years, Canadian interests – governments and industry – have been promoting the Keystone XL pipeline as a necessary outlet for Canadian oil. Pipeline proponents sometimes describe Canadian oil as being held captive and sold at a discount due to a lack of market access. The Keystone XL pipeline would carry Alberta oil sands product to refineries in the American Midwest and on the U.S. Gulf Coast. The project has been delayed, however, by the U.S. government, which has yet to announce a decision about approving or rejecting the proposal.

Given the pipeline's obvious economic benefits to Canada, it might seem safe to assume that Canadians would be more supportive of the project than Americans. And given the U.S. government's opposition to the plan, it might also seem safe to assume that Americans are relatively hostile to the initiative. Both assumptions, however, would be wrong.

The PEW Research Center recently released a poll indicating that two in three Americans (65 per cent) support building the Keystone XL pipeline – including eight in ten Republicans in favour and half of Democrats. This is surprising in two ways. First, it suggests that the U.S. government's stalling of the project is out of step with public opinion. Second, it reveals that Americans are actually more supportive of the pipeline than Canadians are; in Environics' most recent measurement, 56 per cent of Canadians supported a pipeline to ship oil south, nine points below the level of support Pew found south of the border.

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What explains these numbers? Environics' research points to two answers: Differences in social values between Americans and Canadians, and among Canadians a nationalistic sentiment that favours proposals that appear to keep more benefits in Canada.

Social values form people's world views; they are the deep-seated beliefs and orientations that underlie their opinions on the issues of the day. Americans and Canadians differ strongly on ecological values. Our measurements tap into sentiments about the acceptability of environmental pollution in developed societies; attitudes on the trade-offs between economic development/jobs and environmental damage; and views on whether environmental activists are extremists or reasonable people. Compared to Canadians, Americans on average tend toward ecological fatalism (pollution is the cost of doing business – too bad) whereas Canadians are more inclined toward ecological concern. Canadians generally do not see environmentalists as extremists, do not consider environmental damage to be an acceptable price for jobs and economic development, and do not accept that pollution is inevitable and acceptable in industrial society. Perhaps not surprisingly, U.S. Democrats are much closer to Canadians in their orientations to these issues, while Republicans' views are distinct from those of both Democrats and Canadians, including most Conservative Party supporters.

To Canadians, not all pipeline proposals are created equal. The public looks more favourably on pipelines that provide opportunities for refining within Canada instead of shipping raw resources directly out of the country. The routes of proposed pipelines are also relevant. Pipelines that would go through B.C. or the Canadian North to export oil to Asia attract the least support (around four in ten). In the middle are proposed routes that would move oil sands oil south to the U.S. (56 per cent support). Most popular are proposed projects that would modify existing pipelines to carry oil sands oil to refineries in Eastern Canada and/or to the East Coast for export to the U.S. (65 per cent support). This pattern is not random: when we ask pipeline opponents why they don't support routes west to Asia or south to the U.S., along with environmental concerns, many say they object to exporting the oil. That is, they believe that the oil should be kept in Canada or, failing that, at least in North America.

Many Canadians are conflicted about the development of the oil sands and the transportation of oil sands oil to market. Although they want the economic benefits and jobs that this development supports, they also want the development to be done in an environmentally responsible way. And take note: if forced to choose, Canadians will prioritize environmental protection over economic development by a ratio of two to one.

Tony Coulson is group vice president, corporate & public affairs at Environics Research

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