Oil tankers, not pipelines, are the hot potato issue

First published in The Vancouver Sun

By BARB JUSTASON, Special to The Vancouver Sun (April 3, 2012) — Thursday’s federal budget is raising a lot of eyebrows in British Columbia — especially the vow to speed up the review of Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline and tanker project.

Two polls released this past week indicated this is going to be a hot-potato issue for B.C. politicians, and the announcements out of Ottawa only increase the urgency for the provincial government to take a stand one way or another.

A Mustel poll commissioned by Burnaby-Douglas New Democratic MP Kennedy Stewart found growing opposition to the Enbridge proposal (although, due to differing methodologies, this is hard to back up).

Mustel tracked a question based on a project description designed by Ipsos Reid on behalf of Enbridge and last asked in December. Here’s the wording they used:

“As you may know, Enbridge is the company leading the Northern Gateway pipelines project, which is a proposal to build an underground pipeline system between near Edmonton, Alta., and Kitimat, in northern B.C. One pipeline will transport oil to Kitimat for export by tanker to China and other Asian markets. A second pipeline will be used to import condensate [a product used to thin oil products for pipeline transport] to Alberta.

“Based on what you know to date, would you say that you generally support or oppose the Northern Gateway pipelines project? Is that strongly or somewhat?”

The results? 50 per cent support and 42 per cent oppose.

But what about the oil tankers? Stewart’s poll barely touches on the crucial role of tankers in Enbridge’s proposal, instead masking the scarcity of this information with content the public can’t possibly have an opinion about — condensate.

My firm, Justason Market Intelligence, also released a poll this week, commissioned by four of B.C.’s leading environmental groups, that probed public opinion on the Enbridge proposal, but our poll included important information about the pipeline and the role of supertankers:

“One of the world’s largest oil transport companies, Enbridge, has asked Ottawa to approve a plan to allow crude oil to be transported from Alberta’s oilsands across British Columbia, where it would be loaded onto oil supertankers en route to refineries in Asia. This would bring crude oil supertankers to the coastal inlets of the Great Bear Rainforest for the first time. Have you heard of this plan?

“Up until now, crude oil supertankers have not entered B.C.’s inside coastal passage because of concerns about oil spills. Ottawa is now considering allowing crude oil supertankers to transport crude oil through these waters. Do you support or oppose allowing crude oil supertankers through B.C.’s inside coastal waters?”

The results? 22 per cent support and 66 per cent oppose, including 50 per cent who strongly oppose. Only 11 per cent strongly support.

Another way of looking at it: If the researcher asks British Columbians about pipelines, about 50 per cent are relatively tolerant right now. If the researcher asks about pipelines and supertankers, tolerance diminishes.

What an interesting foray into the world of opinion research question design. But what does all this mean?

The reality is that the Enbridge proposal relies completely on the presence of supertankers to travel to and from Kitimat through one of the most ecologically sensitive regions of B.C.’s coastal waters, the Great Bear Rainforest.

Eventually, possibly not too long from now, British Columbians will get it. It won’t just be a survey question. They will fully understand the real implications, and potential environmental risk, of the pipeline-tanker proposal.

And once they get it, it will be a very big deal indeed.

Opposition exists across all groups in the province according to our poll. B.C. New Democrats oppose the proposal in the highest numbers, but even among B.C. Liberal and B.C. Conservative voters, opposition to the Enbridge pipeline-tanker proposal exceeds support.

The pressure on Premier Christy Clark to state her position on the proposal is growing. In the coming months, this pressure will be deafening. Coming out in favour of the proposal will win her no love in British Columbia, even among B.C. Liberal supporters. Coming out against it will alienate the federal Conservatives.

At the end of the day, the B.C. government must take a position. Timing is everything. A decision now may pre-empt growing public concern about the Enbridge proposal.

A delayed decision may backfire because, as we see in the polling results, the more British Columbians know about proposals that would bring supertankers to B.C., the more opposed they get.

Barb Justason is the principal of Vancouver-based Justason Market Intelligence.

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