Part 1: Canadians Not As Divided As Many Believe:  Emerging Consensus On Oil And Gas, Climate And The National Interest

As Parliament resumes in Ottawa this week, differences between the parties over energy and environmental issues are sure to hit the headlines and erupt on social media. Judging by these debates, Canadians’ views on things like carbon taxes, pipelines and oil and gas development are increasingly divergent.

Just how divided are they?

Survey research by the University of Ottawa’s Positive Energy program over the last five years seeks to answer this question. The key finding? Canadians aren’t as divided as many believe. There are even areas of emerging consensus on oil and gas development, actions to combat climate change, who should lead decision-making on major energy and environmental issues, and whether the national interest should prevail in energy decision-making.

Start with oil and gas development, one of the most contentious topics in energy and environmental debates. Survey research last fall by Positive Energy/Nanos Research showed that more than half of Canadians support (29 per cent) or somewhat support (26 per cent) growth in the oil and gas sectors (support is down slightly since 2015 so this is definitely a number to keep an eye on).

Importantly, support rises when oil and gas development is connected to environmental performance and action on climate change. More than three quarters of Canadians agree (45 per cent) or somewhat agree (32 per cent) that Canadian oil and gas can play an important long-term role if it operates in an environmentally responsible way. And two-thirds agree (35 per cent) or somewhat agree (31 per cent) that oil and gas exports can help fight climate change if they displace higher emitting energy sources elsewhere. (These figures are down by a few percentage points since the questions were first asked in 2018, another thing to keep an eye on in future surveys.)

Crucially, 60 per cent of Canadians say they would be more supportive of fossil fuel energy if Canada had more proactive climate policies (26 per cent agree, 34 per cent somewhat agree).

Canadians also agree on many issues related to combatting climate change. Nearly all support (76 per cent) or somewhat support (19 per cent) growth in the renewable energy sector. And over six in 10 support or somewhat support new fuel taxes if the revenues go to green projects. These figures have held steady since 2015. Further, nearly six in 10 agree (31 per cent) or somewhat agree (28 per cent) that Canada should meet its climate commitments even if it means higher energy prices. Support for this idea has strengthened since the question was first asked in 2018 (25 per cent agreed, 27 per cent somewhat agreed at that time).

By these measures, Canadians’ support for climate action has held firm — even increased.

Canadians are also aligned on who should take the lead on energy and environmental decision-making. Over seven in 10 (71 per cent) think the federal government should lead decisions on major pipeline projects. Majorities across all regions support this position, and these views have remained strong — even increased slightly— since the question was first asked in 2015.

The same number (71 per cent) say Ottawa should lead on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Majorities across all regions support this position, but support has dropped down from eight in 10 Canadians since the question was first asked in 2015 — another topic to watch in future surveys.

When it comes to which interests should prevail in energy project decision-making, Canadians prioritize the national interest. A solid majority think it matters more in energy decisions than local, Indigenous or provincial interests (64 per cent, 61 per cent and 63 per cent, respectively). And support for the national interest has climbed by more than 10 per cent since the question was first asked in 2015, when it stood, respectively, at 51 per cent, 49 per cent and 49 per cent. 

But this doesn’t mean Ottawa should run roughshod over community interests. Canadians see a strong role for partnerships with Indigenous and local communities. More than eight in 10 support (52 per cent) or somewhat support (30 percent) governments negotiating an energy accord with Indigenous peoples to reduce conflict and uncertainty. These figures have held steady since 2015, a significant finding given the large number of energy projects in the news where Indigenous support or opposition — in many cases both — has been front and centre.

Further, a majority agree or somewhat agree that energy companies should develop partnerships with Indigenous communities even if it means lower tax revenues to governments (28 per cent agree, 31 per cent somewhat agree) or higher energy prices (26 per cent agree, 28 per cent somewhat agree). Similar figures hold for partnerships with local communities and municipalities. And support for such partnerships has grown since the question was first asked in 2018, in some instances, by almost 10 per cent, a substantial rise.

All of these findings are encouraging news for those charting a path for Canada’s energy future in an age of climate change. There may be more room for optimism and common ground than the headlines suggest. This is particularly important with a minority government at the federal level, where partisan debate will be intense. It is also pivotal to bear in mind in a fractious federal-provincial climate, where political leaders can be prone to grand standing.

Part 3 of this series explores what a positive path forward might look like for Canada on energy and environment. Before moving to that, Part 2 focuses on areas where Canadians disagree, in particular, whether their views are polarized into hardened extremes that challenge finding common ground.  

An introduction to this series is available here.

The Positive Energy/Nanos Omnibus Survey of 1,000 Canadians, 18 years of age or older, was conducted between August 29 and September 4, 2019. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. Previous survey dates (same methodology with identical questions) are March 2018, October 2017, October 2015 and March 2015.

Complete survey results available on the Positive Energy website https://www.uottawa.ca/positive-energy/.

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