Gattinger: Canadians’ Views On Energy And Environment During COVID-19, Part II — Bridging The Divide

This is the second in a two-part series. To read Part 1, click here.

What are Canadians’ views on oil and gas development during COVID-19?

Positive Energy and Nanos Research asked Canadians a range of questions about oil and gas during the pandemic. A June 2020 survey asked people to rank their level of support for growth in the oil and gas sector. Consistent with most survey questions of this type, a majority of Canadians (52 per cent) support or somewhat support growth. Differences between support during the pandemic and support in 2019 are within the margin of error. This suggests the pandemic has not eroded support for oil and gas.

That said, there’s a clear decline in support since this question was first asked in 2015: support is down from about 60 per cent in both 2015 and 2018. And opposition has grown: from about one-third opposed or somewhat opposed in 2015 and 2018, to over 40 per cent in 2019 and 2020 (43 per cent and 44 per cent, respectively). For comparison’s sake, support for growth in renewables has held strong since 2015, with 93 per cent of Canadians supporting or somewhat supporting growth in the sector in 2015, 2018 and 2020; support was 95 per cent in 2019.

Whether Canadians’ support for oil and gas will continue to slip remains to be seen. But responses to other oil and gas questions suggest that it might.

In late November 2020, Positive Energy and Nanos asked Canadians to rate the importance of oil and gas to Canada’s current economy and to its future economy on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 means not at all important and 10 is extremely important. People clearly view oil and gas as more important now than in the future, with the percentage of those answering extremely important (7-10) dropping almost 25 per cent between the two questions (65 per cent for current economy, 41 per cent for future economy). Meanwhile, those answering not at all important (0-3) jumped 20 per cent between the current and future questions (seven per cent current, 27 per cent future).

This suggests support for growth in the oil and gas sector could continue to slide going forward.

But not for all Canadians.

Dig deeper into the data and responses vary across regional, ideological and partisan lines, with those answering extremely important (7-10) much higher for those in the Prairies (73 per cent current importance, 59 per cent future importance), right-leaning Canadians (91 per cent current, 77 per cent future) and Conservative party supporters (92 per cent current, 81 per cent future).

These differences deserve close attention from energy and climate policymakers. Governments will need to navigate divisive and potentially polarizing debates over oil and gas in Canada’s energy future.

As they do so, they will need to carefully consider the role of information. Many think that those holding views different from their own will change their opinions if they are ‘educated’ with ‘the facts.’ But information isn’t viewed the same way by everyone.

The November 2020 survey asked Canadians an open-ended question about which information sources they trust for news about energy and climate. The top two answers for both issues were news media (22 per cent for energy; 20 per cent for climate) and science, peer-reviewed articles and researchers (19 per cent for energy; 25 per cent for climate). The CBC/Radio Canada was specifically mentioned by one in ten Canadians (10 per cent for both energy and climate).

Interestingly, the third most frequently cited response was ‘none’: more than one in ten respondents said they don’t trust any information sources for energy and climate (12 per cent for both issues). That’s a lot of people.

Breaking the data down by political ideology reveals substantial differences between right-leaning and left-leaning Canadians. For energy, those on the left gave greater weight to science (28 per cent) and the CBC/Radio Canada (18 per cent), while almost one in five right-leaning respondents said that there are no sources they trust the most (19 per cent). Right-leaning respondents also gave far less weight to science (nine per cent) and the CBC/Radio Canada (two per cent) for energy information.

Similar tendencies held for climate, with science the most trusted for almost one-third of left-leaning respondents (32 per cent) and the CBC/Radio Canada for almost one in five (18 per cent). For those on the right, more than one in five mentioned ‘none’ (22 per cent), less than one in five mentioned science (18 per cent) and only three per cent the CBC/Radio Canada.

Interestingly, government does not emerge as a top trusted source for either energy or climate information (eight per cent and five per cent, respectively). Industry fares even worse, with four per cent of mentions for energy and a jaw-dropping one per cent for climate. Views differ again by ideology, with industry trusted more by right-leaning Canadians for energy information (10 per cent).

So what’s the upshot of these survey findings?

Overall, they show that Canadians lean towards climate action and oil and gas development during COVID-19. A slim majority of people support both issues (the same percentage: 52 per cent).

But the findings suggest this modest consensus is not particularly broad or deep. While support for climate action has grown during COVID-19, opinions are polarized, particularly along ideological and partisan lines.

And while support for oil and gas development held steady since 2019, it has trended downward over the last five years. Canadians’ views about oil and gas are becoming divided, with increasingly similar numbers of people supporting and opposing development.

What’s more, while two-thirds of Canadians see oil and gas as important to the country’s current economy, the figure drops to four in ten for the future. This suggests support for oil and gas could slip further in the years ahead. But not for all Canadians: there are substantially higher levels of support for oil and gas from right-leaning Canadians, supporters of the Conservative Party, and people who live in the Prairies.

Put all of this together and it’s clear that decision makers charting Canada’s energy and climate future have their work cut out for them. They will need to carefully navigate differences in opinion, build bridges across partisan, ideological and regional divides, and cultivate areas of agreement.

An essential ingredient in this is information, particularly understanding which information sources people trust or mistrust. The fact that so many Canadians say they trust no information sources for energy and climate, and that so few turn to government is a major challenge for policymakers. So are the differences in trusted information sources along ideological lines. Better understanding why people trust or mistrust different sources and communicating information to people from sources they view as credible will be key.

So will be cultivating areas of agreement. Previous polls by Positive Energy and Nanos show that a positive path forward on energy and climate is possible. Canadians agree on multiple areas of energy and environment, particularly where economic, environmental and social objectives can be aligned. Developing integrated balanced approaches that pay careful attention to where and how Canadians’ views align and diverge on the issues will be crucial. All the more so in the context of COVID-19, where multiple policy priorities will compete for public and government attention.

The survey was an RDD dual frame (land- and cell-lines) hybrid telephone and online random survey of 1,096 Canadians, 18 years of age or older, between November 26th and November 29th, 2020 as part of a Nanos Omnibus survey. The margin of error for this survey is ±3.0 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. Previous survey dates (same methodology) are June 28-July 2 2020; August 29 to September 4 2019; March 2018, October 2015 and March 2015.

Complete survey results available on the Positive Energy website

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