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The potential pitfalls of Trudeau’s pipeline politics

Pollster Nik Nanos.

The Globe and Mail

Nik Nanos is The Globe and Mail's pollster and chairman of Nanos Research.

Pipeline politics plagued the Harper Conservatives and are a political hot potato for the Trudeau Liberals. The twist now is that where the pro-energy Conservatives who touted Canada as an energy superpower failed to deliver, there will be more action on the pipeline front under the pro-environment Liberals.

A recent study released by the University of Ottawa's Positive Energy initiative, which included research by Nanos, found that, for many energy projects, it's not a straight up fight between environmentalists and energy proponents. Rather, it's also about safety, the distribution of benefits, and local environmental impacts. Local interests demand that their voice be heard and are skeptical of centralized decision-making.

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Nanos surveyed communities on a diversity of local projects ranging from the Northern Gateway Energy Pipeline in British Columbia through to Shale Gas Exploration in New Brunswick.

For example, the survey just released but completed last summer among residents of Kitimat suggested residents are marginally more likely to support rather than oppose the project (42 per cent support, 12 per cent somewhat support, 34 per cent oppose and 6 per cent somewhat oppose) while a majority disagree (37 per cent) or somewhat disagree (17 per cent) that they could trust public authorities about making decisions about energy projects. Majorities agree or somewhat agree that pipelines increase the risk of an accident that could significantly harm their community while at the same time agree or somewhat agree that the project will create local jobs. The random telephone survey of 355 Kitimat residents done in August, 2016, also suggests that residents are more likely to believe that the federal government should be responsible for providing information on the pipeline compared to the provincial or municipal levels of government.

The lesson is that the heavy hand of a central government whether federal or provincial is fraught with local and national political pitfalls.

For a government elected on a platform of change from the previous government, average Canadians would likely think that the natural inclination of the Trudeau government would be to punt rather than run with a pipeline project.

The Liberal strategy seems to be a two pronged attack – force carbon pricing on provinces to achieve greenhouse gas reduction targets and then look to approve or seriously consider pipeline projects. In effect, the strategy is not giving a clear win to either the pro-carbon or the pro-environmental advocates. Perhaps the mixed message – to move towards a balanced approach – is the key objective of the Trudeau Liberals.

The reality is that, even with the approval of any pipeline or pro-carbon initiative, it must function within the broader environmental framework and greenhouse gas targets for Canada. In that respect, the approval of a pipeline is not necessarily a political endorsement. The economic viability of a pipeline will be a function of both the price of a barrel of oil and the Canadian environmental regime. A low oil price makes oil less profitable and targets to reduce greenhouse gases restrict the economic impact.

With greenhouse gas targets in place and carbon pricing in the works, the true political impact of a pipeline approval is realistically minimal as long as Canada meets greenhouse emission targets. In that respect, approval of a pipeline should not be seen as a betrayal by the Liberals of environmentalists.

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Where the national political risk is likely manageable, the real risk might be among the communities directly affected by a pipeline project. Unaddressed, those communities and constituencies represent a new potential corridor of political disaffection where a decision enabled by a perceived distant national government is imposed on communities.

This disconnect strikes at the heart of the public opinion surveys done by Nanos for the University of Ottawa in five communities with major energy projects – beware the local backlash enabled by central governments.

The key takeaway – the national mood may be easier for the Liberals to manage than disgruntled local pro-environment residents who feel abandoned by the very government they thought they could rely upon.

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