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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with British Columbia Premier John Horgan and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley in Trudeau's office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on April 15, 2018.

CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

Monica Gattinger is director of the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy. Nik Nanos is chair and CEO of Nanos Research.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emerged from Sunday’s summit meeting with B.C. Premier John Horgan and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion reasserting the federal government’s commitment to get the project built while protecting the environment.

New survey data confirm that Canadians are behind him. In a study undertaken by Nanos Research on behalf of the University of Ottawa’s Positive Energy initiative, a majority of respondents say the federal government should have the final say on major national energy projects. They also support long-term development of the country’s oil and gas sector if it’s done in an environmentally responsible way.

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But the Prime Minister should not take this to mean it’s smooth sailing ahead. Canadians also say the country is doing a remarkably poor job of making balanced decisions – whether in terms of the interests of local or Indigenous communities, the interests of investors, or the distribution of benefits of energy projects across the country. The Trudeau government has its work cut out for it on that front.

The survey, conducted just before Kinder Morgan’s April 8 announcement halting all non-essential construction on the Trans Mountain pipeline and giving governments until the end of May to resolve the impasse, provides a unique insight into Canadians’ opinions and attitudes on energy decision-making unvarnished by the controversy. The full survey will be released later this month, but pre-release findings provide useful guideposts for the Prime Minister and premiers as they move forward to resolve the impasse.

Most importantly, a majority of respondents say Ottawa should have the final decision-making power on national energy projects. More than 60 per cent say the federal government should have the final say, whether via an independent regulatory agency (36 per cent) or cabinet (25 per cent). Provincial, Indigenous and local governments score well behind, at 12 per cent, 7 per cent and 8 per cent, respectively (10 per cent said other, 3 per cent were unsure). When asked about pipeline projects specifically, more than two-thirds (68 per cent) say the federal government should lead decision-making (25 per cent say the provinces). A majority of respondents also say the national interest should prevail over the interests of provinces (60 per cent), Indigenous peoples (61 per cent) and local residents (61 per cent) in a proposed energy project moving forward – and that opinion has climbed upward from about 50 per cent since we first asked the question in 2015.

But this doesn’t mean Ottawa should run roughshod over concerns in British Columbia. Canadians score governments very poorly on balancing intergovernmental and inter-regional interests in energy decision-making. When asked how well Canada is doing balancing local community concerns about energy projects with broader regional, provincial or national interests, only 3 per cent responded “very good.” Providing a clear, predictable and competitive policy and regulatory environment for investors? Two per cent. Ensuring that the benefits of energy projects are distributed equitably across Canada? Three per cent.

Adding in those who responded that Canada’s performance was “good” on these questions only bumps up the numbers to 17 per cent at most saying good or very good. The preponderance of opinion was pessimistic, with almost half of respondents saying the country is performing poorly or very poorly on these fronts. Grim stuff. And attitudes have not changed since last fall, when we asked Canadians the same questions – if anything, people score governments lower than they did six months ago.

But all is not lost. When asked if Canada can develop its energy resources while protecting the environment, almost all respondents believe this can be done: a full 90 per cent say it is possible (54 per cent) or somewhat possible (36 per cent). A majority also supports growth of Canada’s oil and gas sector, with more than 60 per cent supporting (31 per cent) or somewhat supporting (30 per cent) more development.

Finally, of perhaps pivotal importance, respondents believe the country’s oil and gas sector can play an important long-term role domestically and internationally if it operates in an environmentally responsible way (55 per cent agree, 29 per cent somewhat agree). Further, almost three-quarters believe the country’s oil and gas exports can contribute to combatting global climate change if they displace energy sources in other countries that are more damaging to the climate (43 per cent agree, 31 per cent somewhat agree).

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The key for Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Horgan and Ms. Notley, is to resolve the current impasse on the Trans Mountain pipeline in a way that demonstrates governments can strike the kind of balance Canadians are looking for on energy projects. Perhaps for Canadians who are in a dour mood when it comes to the country’s ability to balance local concerns with a broader public interest, the current pipeline firestorm could be an opportunity to find a pragmatic balanced path forward where Canadians can reconcile their environmental aspirations with economic priorities.

The Nanos survey of 1,000 Canadians, 18 years of age or older, was conducted between March 31 and April 3. The margin for error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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