Energy is a national issue, poll finds

Survey shows Canadians increasingly concerned about power, fuels

May 06, 2012

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The Survey Q&A from the Lobbyists National Energy Strategy Hydraulic Fracturing
Markets Public Priorities Oil Sands Oil and Gas Industry

Interested in a PDF download of the national survey? Click here

After years of ambivalence, Canadians are finally taking a shine to the energy sector. Sure, they still fret that the industry is too dirty, its environmental footprint too large, and its practices too unsustainable. But they also recognize the tremendous impact it has on the Canadian economy and that the sector is making strides to improve its environmental and social performance.

That is one big takeaway from an opinion poll conducted by the Alberta office of survey firm Leger Marketing. “There is an opportunity for Alberta to change the message here,” says Ian Large, Leger’s vice-president for Alberta. “To some extent we have to give up the angst over the National Energy Program and refocus the debate.

“Energy is a national issue now, not a western issue.”

Indeed. As British Columbia goes gaga over liquefied natural gas export terminals, Saskatchewan enjoys burgeoning oil production, Ontario cashes in on manufacturing jobs created by oil sands development and skilled tradespeople from Atlantic Canada fly en masse to Alberta’s bitumen belt, Canadians can see the impact the energy sector is having on their lives. And they are feeling increasingly good about it.

This winter Leger randomly selected more than 1,400 Canadians from every region of the country except the North and got their opinions on a variety of energy topics. It is the second time Alberta Oil has conducted this kind of survey with Leger – the inaugural one was done in 2010.

But the times have changed and so have the questions posed to Canadians. In 2010, the survey was taken during a dark time for the oil and gas industry. The Deepwater Horizon disaster that resulted in thousands of barrels of crude oil being spilled into the Gulf of Mexico was fresh in everyone’s minds. So was a verdict that found oil sands pioneer Syncrude Canada Ltd. guilty for the deaths of 1,600 ducks in one of its tailings ponds.

That’s why the reputation of the petroleum industry was the focus of the last survey. Two years later, the sector finds itself in a better place and other issues have grabbed center stage. Access to new markets, the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing and the need for a national energy strategy have emerged as hot-button issues.

On the subject of a national energy strategy, the poll found Canadians overwhelmingly support the need for one. However, Alberta respondents were less enthusiastic about the idea than anyone else – a sign that 32 years after Pierre Trudeau established the hated National Energy Program, the province is still wary of any federal meddling in its oil and gas industry.

“Albertans don’t want the federal government involved [in a national energy strategy]. But I think the federal government has to be involved and to an extent they have to lead it,” Large says. “If it is western-driven, there is a credibility issue to overcome.”

The survey also shows the oil and gas industry has much to overcome to convince Canadians that the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines are in the national interest. Despite comments from the likes of Janet Holder – Northern Gateway proponent Enbridge Inc.’s point person on the proposed $5.5-billion conduit – that a pipeline designed to ship 525,000 barrels of bitumen production per day from Alberta to the B.C. port of Kitimat is a nation-building endeavor, Canadians aren’t buying the message.

Less than 50 per cent of Canadians polled felt the federal government should work harder to allow Western Canada’s oil and gas to reach export markets and that TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast should be built. Support for the Northern Gateway project was even less robust – only 37 per cent of Canadians thought it should be built.

The industry also faces an uphill battle in convincing Canadians that hydraulic fracturing, which has helped unlock vast amounts of oil and gas in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, is a safe form of extraction. Fracking has been blamed by critics for contaminating drinking water and even causing earthquakes.

Those concerns are not going away. Leger’s polling shows that across the country Canadians are extremely wary about fracking. That wariness has been most pronounced in Quebec, where the provincial government put a halt to fracking in 2011 until an environmental review into the extraction technique is completed. And it’s not just fracking that Quebecers dislike. The survey results shows that Quebec’s attitudes towards oil and gas activity, energy’s role in the economy and the industry in general, are unfavorable compared to the rest of the country.

“That’s one dark spot in the study and it’s no different than what we saw in 2010,” Large says. “Quebec is a tough sell. Quebecers don’t think this rising tide is affecting them. Can the oil and gas sector say it has 10,000 Quebecers working in the oil sands? Probably not. The West needs a better engagement strategy there.”

The good news for the industry is that public perceptions change. Compared to 2010, Canadians’ views on how credible and trustworthy the petroleum industry is in providing information about carbon emissions, water use, tailings ponds, extraction processes, environmental regulations and more, have improved. Canadians realize the energy sector is the most important economic driver in the country. There is still much work to do in improving its image, but Canadians are coming around. The industry isn’t viewed as the bogeyman anymore.

Interested in a PDF download of the national survey? Click here


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