Opinions On Energy And Environment In Canada Part 3: How To Chart A Positive Path Forward On Energy And Environment

Monica Gattinger.

This is the final part in a three-part series. To read Part 1, click here. To access Part 2, click here.


With increasingly stringent public health measures across the country to combat COVID-19, Canadians are understandably less focused on energy and environment than usual. But the precipitous drop in global oil prices and the collapse in Canadian energy stocks underscore the tight link between energy and global circumstances.

Canadian energy seems forever caught in the crosshairs of global change, whether mounting concerns for the climate, shifts in world energy production or, most recently, a health pandemic with far-reaching economic consequences. Domestic issues also challenge the sector — think uncertainty over the rights of Indigenous peoples in project decision-making, disagreements over the respective roles of Ottawa and the provinces, or divisions between Canadians over energy and environmental issues.

Parts 1 and 2 of this series examined the opinions of Canadians and energy/environmental leaders using survey research by Positive Energy at the University of Ottawa.

The main message? People aren’t divided as commonly believed. There are even areas of emerging consensus. And where people disagree, views aren’t necessarily concentrated at polarized extremes — opinions may be more amenable to change and compromise than many think.

This final part of the series suggests how Canada can create a positive path forward on energy and environment.

First, charting a path begins with a cool head. A close look at empirical research reveals that things may not be as bad as some leaders think. Last fall, one hundred energy and environmental leaders responded to a Positive Energy/Nanos Research survey. One of the questions asked whether respondents thought the energy debate in Canada had become more polarized over the last 18 months. Leaders believed overwhelming that it had, with more than nine in 10 answering ‘yes’ to the question.

The first two parts of this series reveal this assessment may be exaggerated. While things may be more polarized in political debates — almost four in 10 leaders said this is because energy has become ‘a political talking point’ — so-called ‘ordinary’ Canadians and energy/environmental leaders are not necessarily polarized on the issues.

Second, finding a path forward also requires humility. Governments are not starting from a position of strength on these files: Canadians score government performance very poorly. In a Positive Energy/Nanos omnibus survey last fall, almost half of respondents said Canada has done a poor (28 per cent) or very poor (20 per cent) job of developing a shared, long-term vision for energy. A meagre 17 per cent said Canada has done a good (15 per cent) or very good job (two per cent). A smaller number still (13 per cent) said that Canada has done a good or very good job at building public confidence in energy decision-making. And only 17 per cent think Canada does a good (15 per cent) or very good job (two per cent) of ensuring that the benefits of energy projects are distributed equitably across the country. These results are consistent with previous surveys asking the same questions and point to a breakdown of trust in public decision-making.

Third, any approach forward requires multiple facets and hard work. There are no easy fixes or silver bullets. Think of all the effort that went into the Alberta Climate Leadership Plan, the Council of the Federation’s energy vision, or the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change. These initiatives and many others paved the way for a carbon tax and federal support for pipelines, but implementation has been far from smooth and successful. Positive progress is possible, but it requires patience and ongoing efforts across a host of co-ordinated channels and initiatives.

Fourth, it requires a focus beyond oil and gas. The future of Canadian energy is fraught for many sectors. Take nuclear. Last fall, Positive Energy asked Canadians whether they agreed or disagreed that ‘generating more nuclear energy is one of the best ways of addressing climate change.’ At the national level, Canadians are divided on the issue. Opinions were fragmented, with more than four in 10 respondents supporting the statement (16 per cent slightly agree, 16 per cent agree and 11 per cent strongly agree) and over a third opposing it (11 per cent slightly disagree, 12 per cent disagree and 13 per cent strongly disagree).

Opinions tend toward polarized when breaking out the data by party support. Almost one third of Bloq supporters (31 per cent) and one in five Green supporters (20 per cent) strongly disagree with the statement. Bloq supporters are also the least likely to strongly agree (six per cent). Conservative supporters are the most likely to hold the opposite views (nine per cent strongly disagree, 13 per cent strongly agree).

The break-out by region also tends towards polarized views. In Québec, close to one quarter (23 per cent) of respondents strongly disagreed with the statement while in Ontario and the prairies there were higher levels of strong agreement (16 per cent in Ontario, 15 per cent in the prairies).

These fragmented views at the national level and polarized views along party and regional lines stand in contrast to energy and environment leaders’ opinions on nuclear. Here, respondents to the fall leaders’ survey were in solid agreement about nuclear, with more than two-thirds (69 per cent) supporting the statement. More than a quarter strongly agreed (27 per cent).

Divisions between Canadians and between Canadians and energy/environment leaders challenge finding a shared vision for nuclear — just as they do for oil and gas. But it is possible. On the nuclear question, those who strongly agreed or disagreed were in the minority: over three-quarters of Canadians either did not have a view on the issue or had views that were not strongly held. This suggests there is room for optimism: as in many issues relating to oil and gas, peoples’ views might not be hardened in ways that challenge finding common ground. 

Fifth, any approach should build on areas of consensus and connect energy to things people care about, notably the environment and community partnerships. Part 1 of this series described areas of emerging consensus in public opinion. There is majority support for oil and gas development and high majorities for government actions to combat climate change. There is also a growing consensus that the federal government should lead decision-making on major energy and environmental issues and that the national interest should prevail in energy decision-making.

But governments should not take for granted Canadians’ support for oil and gas. While support for climate policies has held firm (even increased for some measures), support for oil and gas has dipped in recent years (see Part 1). Importantly, a majority of Canadians say they would be more supportive of oil and gas if Canada had more proactive climate policies. Likewise, governments should not take for granted support for federal leadership. Canadians do not want governments to run roughshod over communities. They are looking for projects to be done in partnership with local and Indigenous peoples. Any path forward needs to connect energy development to environmental and social performance.

Sixth, it also needs to be careful about how things are framed, including when it comes to the compatibility of oil and gas development with climate action. Canadians are more likely to believe that Canada’s climate commitments are compatible with fossil fuel development than they are with new pipelines. When asked whether they agree or disagree that ‘Canada can continue to develop fossil fuels such as oilsands in Alberta and still meet its climate commitments,’ opinions tended towards agreement, with more than half of respondents supporting the statement (19 per cent slightly agree, 19 per cent agree and 15 per cent strongly agree) and just under a third opposing it (11 per cent slightly disagree, eight per cent disagree and 13 per cent strongly disagree).

Meanwhile, when asked whether they agree or disagree that ‘Building new pipelines is incompatible with Canada’s international obligations to reduce carbon emissions,’ opinions were fragmented, with less than half agreeing (15 per cent slightly agree, 16 per cent agree and 16 per cent strongly agree) and a third disagreeing (12 per cent slightly disagree, 11 per cent disagree and 10 per cent strongly disagree).

In both cases, opinions were polarized along partisan and regional lines, but in the case of the first statement, opinions tended towards agreement across age cohorts. More research is needed to unpack why Canadians seem to hold different views on the compatibility of climate action and energy development depending on how it is framed, but a key point for decision-makers is that framing matters.

Seventh, a positive path forward requires more than just a narrative that builds on areas of consensus and advances issues people care about. It also requires robust policy and industry action and a credible demonstration of ongoing progress. The growing interest in environmental, social and governance (ESG) indicators is encouraging on this front. It could enable the country and individual industry subsectors and companies to credibly benchmark and track performance on an ongoing basis. Claims that Canada has world class regulation, environmental or industry performance need to be substantiated with robust and credible metrics — and policy measures.

Finally, given that opinions on many of these issues are polarized along partisan lines, it will be crucial to look for ways and forums that enable debate and action to move beyond partisan polarization. This could include bipartisan forums and a stronger role for industry, academia, think tanks, Indigenous organizations and NGOs to take action within and between their sectors.

This series reveals that Canadians and energy/environment leaders are less polarized on the issues than many think. Yes, there are issues that divide people, but there is more room to find common ground than commonly believed. This is encouraging news.

But it doesn’t mean it will be easy. There are no silver bullets for issues as complex as energy and environment. And with COVID-19 leading to increasingly restrictive public health measures, public and political attentions will understandably be focused elsewhere in many parts of the country. But the challenges for Canadian energy will not disappear — and they are mounting rapidly given the tight link between the pandemic and energy markets.

Those charting a path forward need to do so with a cool head and humility. A successful approach requires a focus beyond oil and gas. It needs to connect energy to things people care about, including climate change and community partnerships. It needs to be more than a narrative –—it requires robust policy and industry action and a credible demonstration of ongoing progress. It also needs nonpartisan and bipartisan approaches to overcome partisan polarization.

Many roads will need to come together to chart a productive path forward. 

About the surveys

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.

The Polarization Survey, led by Positive Energy researchers Stephen Bird (Clarkson University) and Erick Lachapelle (Université de Montréal), was an online survey conducted via Qualtrics between September 9 and 29, 2019. The sample size was 2,679 with 5 regional subsamples over 500. Margin of error is not applicable for a survey of this kind; a probability-based sample of this size would yield a margin of error of approximately +/- 2per cent, 19 times out of 20 (approximately +/- 4per cent for regional subsamples).

The Positive Energy/Nanos Energy and Environmental Leaders Panel is a group of approximately 2,000 leaders who are invited to participate in successive waves of the panel. Waves have taken place to date in fall 2019 (100 leaders participated), winter 2018 (88 leaders participated) and fall 2016 (141 leaders participated). No margin of error is applicable to this research as it is only representative of the participants’ views.

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