By Bruce Anderson & David Coletto
The Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion project is one of the most hotly debated issues in Canadian politics in years. It would be easy to surmise that public opinion is deeply divided, and firmly entrenched. But our most recent poll of BC adults on this topic tells a somewhat different tale.
We tested 8 different arguments that are made by proponents and opponents of the project, and in each case, asked our respondents whether the argument was persuasive or not. This allowed us to see how polarized the debate had become – or not.
The results paint a picture where many people feel personally conflicted – concerned about spills but also aware of the economic benefits for Canada, worried about the prospect of increasing the use of fossil fuels but also hesitant to see a precedent where one province could stymie the economic opportunity of a neighboring province.
Here are the highlights of our polling:
• 45% have firm opinions, evenly split between support (23%) oppose (22%)
• 35% have a leaning: more likely to lean support (22%) than oppose (13%).
• 20% are completely neutral or undecided
When asked how persuasive 8 different arguments were (4 supportive/4 opposing), similiar proportions of respondents felt all arguments were persuasive, a range which went from 46% to 63%.
• The argument that persuades the most people (63%) is that the pipeline expansion would greatly increase the risk of an oil spill. But essentially the same number (61%) found persuasive the argument that “all provinces benefit from Canada’s oil and would benefit from this project going ahead.
• While 59% found persuasive the argument that “allowing this pipeline to go ahead means encouraging the use of fossil fuels which contribute to climate change”, almost as many (51%) felt that “stopping this pipeline could end up polarizing the country and leading to a reduction in the commitment to fight climate change”
• While 46% found persuasive the argument that “the risks for BC are great, but there is no economic benefit for BC”, even more found themselves persuaded by the argument “it’s a bad precedent for one province to be able to stop something so important to the economy of a neighboring province. (56%)
• Essentially the same number found persuasive the argument that “the project was carefully reviewed and approved” (52%) process as felt the same way about the argument that “the process was inadequate, flawed and can’t be trusted”(50%).
When we isolate only those who lean to one side of the debate or are undecided, we see the same trends. Many feel the arguments for and against the pipeline are persuasive.
Looking deeper under the surface of these reactions reveals that many people feel torn and exhibit mixed feelings, feeling that arguments both in favour and opposed to the project are persuasive. This is far from entrenched polarization, and instead reveals a population which understands that there is no easy choice to be made when it comes to this project.
Here’s how underlying patterns reveal that having “mixed opinions” is quite common:
Among the 62% who find persuasive the argument that the “project will greatly increase the risk of an oil spill”:
• More than half (59%) also find the argument that “stopping this pipeline could end up polarizing the country and lead to a reduction in the commitment to fight climate change” is persuasive.
• 55% find it persuasive that it’s “a bad precedent for one province to oppose something so important to the economy of a neighboring province”.
• 52% are persuaded by the argument that “all provinces benefit from Canada’s oil and gas and would benefit from this project going ahead”
• 47% find persuasive that “the project was carefully reviewed and approved”.
Among the 60% who find the argument “all provinces benefit from Canada’s oil and gas and would benefit from this project going ahead” persuasive:
• 50% say it’s persuasive that “the project will greatly increase the risk of an oil spill”
• 50% say they see the argument that “the process was inadequate, flawed and can’t be trusted” to be persuasive
• 52% say “allowing the pipeline to go ahead means encouraging the use of fossil fuels which contributes to climate change” is a persuasive argument.
Among the 59% who say it’s persuasive that allowing this pipeline to go ahead means “encouraging the use of fossil fuels which contribute to climate change”. Among this group:
• 54% find it persuasive that “it’s a bad precedent for one province to support something so important to the economy of a neighboring province
• 57% find it persuasive that stopping this pipeline could end up polarizing the country and lead to a reduction in the commitment to fight climate change.
While partisan leaders often feel compelled to take hard positions and campaign aggressively against the counter-argument to theirs, our polling shows that this carries risk. Between 40%-50% of BC NDP supporters find arguments in favour of the pipeline persuasive – and 32%-50% of BC Liberal voters find arguments against the pipeline persuasive.
At the federal level, about a third of federal Conservative voters feel arguments against the pipeline are persuasive while similar proportions of federal NDP voters find arguments in favour of Trans Mountain to be persuasive.
Federal Liberal voters in BC hold the most truly mixed views, underscoring the fact that Liberal voters typically do straddle the pragmatic centre of the spectrum.
According to Bruce Anderson: “Advocates for and against this project may feel that the public is rigid, dug in, and now largely unresponsive to any argument. But the truth is, there is a lot of soft opinion, a lot of people have heard both sides of the argument and many believe that both opponents and supporters have good points to make.
In this sort of situation people will tend to tune out rhetoric which sounds overly simplistic and one-sided. They instead will respond better to stakeholders who acknowledge that a decision like this isn’t easy, and involves a willingness to compromise or to have something that you care about put at risk.
As much as some pro-pipeline advocates want to hear politicians going to battle with opponents, voters would probably prefer that their politicians reduce rather than increase the drama.
Soft opponents of this project are probably more likely to accept it’s approval when they hear that those making the decision have listened to and paid respect to the counter-arguments, especially those having to do with spills and climate change.”
Our survey was conducted online with 900 BC residents aged 18 and over from February 26 to March 6, 2018. A random sample of panelists was invited to complete the survey from a set of partner panels based on the Lucid exchange platform. These partners are typically double opt-in survey panels, blended to manage out potential skews in the data from a single source.
The Marketing Research and Intelligence Association policy limits statements about margins of sampling error for most online surveys. The margin of error for a comparable probability-based random sample of the same size is +/- 3.3%, 19 times out of 20.
The data were weighted according to census data to ensure that the sample matched BC’s population according to age, gender, educational attainment, and region. Totals may not add up to 100 due to rounding.
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