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Making the oil sands personal

Ontario versus Alberta? East versus West? Last week's oil sands comments by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty harkened back to the national energy debate in the 1980s, when Calgary mayor Ralph Klein said: "Let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark."

Do Canadians in Alberta and Ontario differ dramatically on this issue? We polled 400 people in Edmonton and Toronto. We wanted to know how much one's attitude toward the oil sands is influenced by regional proximity to the oil sands. The answer: Surprisingly little.

Both Edmontonians and Torontonians are concerned about the environmental impact of oil sands development. Yet, more than 80 per cent of both populations believe it's possible to develop this resource in a way that balances economic development and environmental protection. Surprisingly, neither those in Toronto nor Edmonton view the oil sands from a regional lens: Both view it as important to all of Canada.

Our goal was to explore how personal interest influences attitudes. In other words, how strongly do our own perceived interests influence our opinions? The answer: a lot.

Regardless of where they live, people who perceive oil sands development to be linked to their personal prosperity are likely to show positive attitudes toward the industry. Transforming the oil sands discussion into a national debate is thus important to oil sands supporters. If industry can connect the dots between the oil sands and personal economic well-being, Canadians, regardless of geography, will support policies that encourage balanced development. Our research shows that Canadians have started to connect these dots.

The research also suggests that personal relevance affects opinions about environmental issues around oil sands development. The data, for example, indicate that, whether living in Leduc or Mississauga, 90 per cent of Canadians recognize climate change as one of our most important issues. Thus, geography plays no role in predicting whether individual Canadians think climate change is important.

But important is different than personally relevant. Unemployment is personal, but carbon dioxide is abstract. So when we asked whether people would be prepared to pay an extra $500 a year to fight climate change, most in Edmonton and Toronto said no. It's important but not personal.

This lack of personal relevance may explain why environmental groups have changed their tactics. A message that the oil sands will increase the planet's temperature by a few degrees in 100 years is being replaced by one telling local farmers, local councils and first nations that the oil sands and their pipelines will risk the resource we hold most dear: water. Water is real, not abstract. Using this approach, environmental groups prompted the Obama administration to deny the proposed Keystone XL pipeline route in Nebraska. The conversation was now about water contamination; it was personal.

The rules of engagement of this oil sands battle are now driven by personal relevance, not historic provincial boundaries. Industry wins if Canadians connect the dots between oil sands development and personal economic prosperity. Environmental groups win if they can demonstrate personal negative environmental impact.

So it's no longer a debate, as Mr. McGuinty tried to suggest, of Alberta versus Ontario or East versus West. It's about me. It's personal.

David Finch and Paul Varella teach at Mount Royal University's Bissett School of Business in Calgary. David Deephouse is at the University of Alberta's Alberta School of Business in Edmonton.