Tony Coulson is group vice-president of corporate and public affairs at Environics Research.
What caused the death of TransCanada's Energy East pipeline proposal? Some say it was government and the regulatory process, some blame the economy and others the environmentalists.
Two clear facts seem to stand apart from the noise. First, in August, the National Energy Board announced a widening of the scope of its review of the Energy East proposal. Second, environmental groups are celebrating the cancellation of the Energy East project, and taking some credit for killing it.
In February of 2017, the Council of Canadians issued a media release calling for a major overhaul of the NEB, the federal body charged with regulation of interprovincial pipelines; the Council cited what it called a "crisis of confidence." In a May report, a federal advisory panel mandated to review the NEB used the same phrase: crisis of confidence. Subsequent media reports lent further weight and credibility to the idea that the NEB does not have the public's trust.
Environmentalists played a role in lobbying for the NEB to expand its review of the Energy East proposal to include upstream and downstream climate-change impacts, and applauded that decision when it was announced. The environmental lobby does appear justified, then, in taking at least some credit for derailing the Energy East project's movement through the NEB's regulatory process. But was this a case of the tail wagging the dog, as environmentalists defined the terms of the discussion, while the broader public went unheard?
According to our most recent Canadian Environmental Barometer survey (completed in September), roughly two-thirds of Canadians support a proposed pipeline to Eastern Canada and almost six in 10 support the continued development of the oil sands. These levels are highest in the three Prairie provinces and lowest in Quebec, the only region where there is majority opposition. The proposal to convert existing pipe to transport oil east for refining and export has consistently enjoyed more public support than other options such as a pipeline south to the United States (i.e., Keystone XL) or a pipeline west (i.e., the now-rejected Northern Gateway pipeline and/or the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion).
So, if the Energy East proposal enjoyed considerable public support, what about the crisis of confidence in the NEB? It may be true that the NEB has challenges, but among the Canadian public, a lack of awareness about the Board is more widespread than a lack of confidence. When asked in our survey to name the organization responsible for interprovincial matters relating to transportation of natural resources, only 12 per cent of Canadians offered a response and only 2 per cent gave the correct one. Almost nine in 10 didn't know enough to venture a guess.
Our survey also asked Canadians how well informed they feel about the environmental regulation of industry and business. Only 10 per cent feel well informed, meaning that about nine in 10 feel somewhat, not very, or not at all informed. Our research also reveals a lack of certainty about whether natural-resource development is being regulated in the public interest – almost eight in 10 (78 per cent) are somewhat or not very confident that this is the case for national or interprovincial projects.
Notably, those who claim to be better informed about environmental regulation are less likely to hold a neutral view (56 per cent), and equally divided as to whether they are very confident (21 per cent) or not at all confident (21 per cent) about regulation at the national level.
Industry advocates think the NEB process is fine, opponents think it deeply flawed and the majority of Canadians know little of the Board or its processes. The evidence suggests a generalized lack of awareness of what the NEB is and does, rather than a widespread crisis of confidence.
Few would argue for leadership by poll, but it does appear in this instance that a minority was successful in putting forward a narrative – that of a crisis of confidence – that may not have reflected public opinion. Most Canadians want economic development to be balanced with environmental management, but the majority also view oil-sands development as important to the economic future of their country.