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Tony Coulson is group vice-president of corporate and public affairs at Environics Research.

The debate continues to simmer over the future development of Canada's oil sands and, in particular, the proposals to move the oil to market through various pipelines.

One proposed pipeline that would run through Quebec is being called the Meech Lake of our time. A plan to pipe oil to British Columbia appears stalled over a tanker ban. A third line, also proposed for B.C., faces stiff opposition from indigenous communities and at least one Lower Mainland mayor. Where does the public stand?

Six in 10 Canadians see the continued development of the oil sands as basically a good thing because of the economic benefits and jobs, whereas about four in 10 see development as essentially bad for Canada due to the environmental impacts.

Only about two in 10 Canadians hold a strong position either for or against new pipeline construction, east or west, meaning that about six in 10 Canadians hold more tentative views – either somewhat opposed or somewhat supportive. That this large segment of the population hasn't yet formed solid opinions presents an opportunity for those who care deeply about these issues to convince the majority to adopt their cause.

What's on the minds of these more ambivalent Canadians when they think about pipelines, and what differentiates this group from those with more strongly held views?

Earlier this year, we asked a representative sample of Canadians to rate the importance of a range of factors connected to the development of a pipeline in one of three scenarios: in their local area, to Eastern Canada or to the West Coast. We used a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 meaning "not necessary," 10 meaning "mandatory or must-have" and 5 being "nice to have."

When it comes to pipeline development, Canadians most want to see monitoring and enforcement for spills and leaks, followed by protection of public health and safety, and environmental protection. Jobs and other economic arguments fall into a third tier of considerations, well behind the top priorities just listed. The research also found that people rated these factors as equally vital regardless of the project's location (local area, pipeline east or pipeline west).

Arguing the economic merits of pipeline construction resonates with supporters who are already convinced that health and environmental protections are in place, and arguing the environmental risk resonates with opponents who see the regulations as insufficient. Growing a majority constituency, however, will require a different approach, one that reaches out to the undecided and speaks to their issues – monitoring and enforcement, and public health and safety.

Our extensive research on this topic shows that ambivalent or undecided Canadians focus more on certain considerations than do highly engaged industry supporters or environmentalists on either side of the issue.

Finding ways to reach these less engaged and more conflicted Canadians is no easy task, but understanding their issues and concerns is an important first step. While the majority cite regulation and enforcement as important concerns, for example, our research has found that relatively few Canadians consider themselves familiar with how industry is currently regulated in our country.

Support for oil-sands development has ebbed and flowed over the past eight years or so, and support for various pipeline options varies from region to region. The vocal debate on these topics, however, appears to be missing the mark with those Canadians whose opinions are not yet fully formed.

Reaching out to this audience presents an opportunity for advocates on either side of the issue, and may be the way to bring the debate to a conclusion.

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