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Why Canadians and Americans have traded places on pipeline politics

Tony Coulson is Group vice-president, Corporate & Public Affairs, at Environics Research.

Not long ago, more Americans than Canadians supported the Keystone XL pipeline. At that time, the United States was led by a green-leaning president and Canada by a prime minister who was strongly supportive of the oil industry. Today, the tables have turned: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is attempting to balance economic development with environmental protection while the White House seems to have a different view of climate science, and a drill-baby-drill take on resource development. Public attitudes in the two societies have also shifted.

On Keystone XL, only about four in 10 Americans support the pipeline, down from two-thirds in 2013, and almost half now oppose the project, according to a recently released survey from the PEW Research Center. The partisan split is pronounced: three-quarters of Republicans support the pipeline, whereas three-quarters of Democrats are opposed.

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In Canada, six in 10 support the Keystone XL project, up slightly compared to tracking over the past few years. Canadians' support for the pipeline varies by party preference along a left-right continuum, from levels of three and four in 10 among Green and NDP supporters, to six in 10 among Liberals and nearly eight in 10 among Conservatives.

How to explain this turn of events? For one, many Canadians are comfortable with an approach that attempts to balance environmental protection with economic development. In response to one of our recent survey questions, eight in 10 Canadians, including at least three-quarters in every region, said they believe that "it is possible for governments in Canada to effectively balance both environmental and economic initiatives, ensuring that Canada has both a strong economy and a healthy environment."

Another recent finding indicates that Canadians believe society has been doing more to strike that balance. We have been tracking responses to a question that asks Canadians to name any individuals, groups or organizations that stand out as demonstrating positive leadership on the environment. In 2013, "none of the above" was the leading response at almost two-thirds. That response has dropped to four in 10 today; mentions of perceived leadership have increased for environmental non-governmental organizations, individuals, governments and industry. Canadians, then, appear to recognize recent efforts on the environment. Since they believe a balance between the environment and the economy is possible and desirable – and since they now believe the environment side of that balance is getting more attention – Canadians seem increasingly supportive of the energy industry and infrastructure development.

This recent increase in support for the development of Canada's oil sands, and for pipelines to get the product to market, may be at least partly due to the election of a federal government that gives voice to most Canadians' attitudes and opinions on climate and the environment by calling for balanced development. The efforts of Alberta's NDP government have also likely played a role; a majority of Canadians outside Alberta consider that Province's Climate Leadership Plan a step in the right direction, and three in 10 say it makes them more likely to support new pipelines.

In the United States, on the other hand, a pro-development and climate-skeptical government faces a public that is less keen on pipeline development – perhaps due to years of highly publicized protests as well as the perspective of the prior administration.

In Canada, a change of leadership and a perceived focus on the environment appears to be boosting support for energy development and pipelines. Americans have elected a jobs-or-bust government, but seem more opposed than ever to pipeline construction. Pipeline politics make strange bedfellows indeed.

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