Energy Politics: Northern Gateway and Oil Sands Wealth

Support for Northern Gateway Drops; Canadians Not Convinced Alberta Oil Sands Benefits Everyone

A new survey conducted by Abacus Data finds that Canadians are divided when it comes to support for Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline.  Since January, support for the pipeline has fallen seven points.  Three in ten respondents (31%) surveyed support the pipeline while another 32% oppose it.  Thirty-eight percent neither support nor oppose it.

National Benefit from Alberta oil sands?

Before asking specific questions about the Northern Gateway Pipeline, respondents were asked whether they believed wealth generated from the Alberta oil sands benefits all Canadians.

Canadians were more likely to disagree than agree with the statement “all Canadians benefit from the wealth generated from the Alberta oil sands.“   Overall, thirty-six percent of respondents either strongly or somewhat agreed while 45% either strongly or somewhat disagreed with the statement.

Regionally, Albertans were most likely to agree (74%) while Quebecers (56%) and British Columbians (52%) were most likely to disagree.

Support for the Northern Gateway Pipeline

Nationally, three in ten respondents (31%) said they either strongly or somewhat supported the Northern Gateway Pipeline while 32% opposed it.  This represents a seven-point decline in support since January 2012 and a three point increase in opposition.

Support for the pipeline was highest in Alberta (63%) while opposition was strongest in British Columbia (56%),  Canadians from outside  the two westernmost provinces were less conclusive about the pipeline.  A plurality of respondents in Atlantic Canada, Quebec, and Ontario were either unsure or said they neither support nor opposed the pipeline.

Politically, Conservative Party supporters were most likely to support the pipline (55% support) while NDP and Liberal Party supporters were more likely to oppose it (Liberal 47% oppose, NDP 44% oppose).

Opposition to the pipeline was also correlated with views about whether all Canadians benefit from the Alberta oil sands.   Those who agree that all Canadians benefit from the oil sands were much more likely to support the pipeline (59% support) than those who disagreed with the statement (14% support).  Convincing Canadians that there are national benefits to oil sands development will be key to increasing support for the pipeline nationally.

Among those following news of the pipeline more closely, opinion was more conclusive with 48% saying they support the pipeline and 43% saying they oppose it.  This suggests that as Canadians become more aware of the pipeline nationally, support could increase.

Christy Clark’s Ultimatum

Respondents were given information about BC Premier Christy Clark’s conditions for supporting the Northern Gateway Pipeline.  The most contentious, that BC receives its fair share of tax revenue for the environmental risk it is taking, was told to respondents.  They were then asked which of two statements came closest to their view.

Overall, a large majority of Canadians surveyed (71%) believed that Christy Clark was right in her demand.  If B.C. is assuming most of the risk for oil spills and environmental damage, it should receive more of the economic benefit then it would currently receive.

In contrast, 29% believed she was wrong because provinces should not be able to prevent another province from selling its goods and resources to other markets when they have to be transported across provincial boundaries.

Regionally, there was a sharp difference of opinion between Albertans and the rest of Canada.  Two in three Albertans (66%)  believed that Christy Clark was wrong compared with over seven in ten Canadians in the rest of the country who thought the BC Premier was right in her demands.    Most striking, 85% of British Columbia respondents agreed with Clark’s position as did 83% of NDP supporters nationally.

Bottom Line

As energy policy rises to the top of the government agendas, so too do the political stakes involved.

In the last seven months, support for the Northern Gateway Pipeline has slipped nationally, and now divides the country into three equally sized groups: those who support it, those who oppose it, and those who haven’t yet made up their mind.

It is dividing not only eastern and western Canada but also the populations of the country’s two western neighbours whose people are more divided on the issue than ever before.

Albertans believe the rest of Canada benefits from their energy resources and strongly support the Northern Gateway Pipeline to help get that resource to new markets.

British Columbians are less convinced that other Canadians benefit from the oil sands and strongly oppose the pipeline running through their province.

Support in Ontario and Quebec for the pipeline is modest at best and Christy Clark’s argument about risk and reward for allowing the movement of hazardous goods through provinces resonates with the public outside of Alberta.

All this adds up to a potentially big mess for the federal government.  One part of its base, Alberta, supports the pipeline while another part (British Columbia) is deeply opposed.  As the rest of the country continues to make up its mind, Stephen Harper and the Conservative government will have to find a way to manage this difficult issue.

In BC (which we conducted more interviews than usual, n=793), 41% of 2011 Conservative Party voters oppose the pipeline with 21% strongly opposed.  Those are tough numbers for Prime Minister Harper and his BC caucus.

Download detailed tables


The survey was conducted online with 2,099 respondents in English and French using an internet survey platform. A random sample of panelists was invited to participate in the survey from a larger internet representative panel of over 150,000 Canadians.  The survey was completed from August 10-12, 2012.

An over sample of was conducted in British Columbia (n=793) and Ontario (n=502).  The data was statistically weighted by age, gender, region, and education level according to census data.

Since the online survey was not a random, probability based sample, a margin of error could not be calculated. The margin of error for a survey of 2,099 respondents using a probability sample is +/- 2.2%, 19 times out of 20.

For more information about the survey, please contact Alex Monk or David Coletto at 613-232-2806.